The new, revised edition of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice

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From “Oops!” to “Aha!”: A Story of Reflection and Reflexivity


I’ve said this before: We can write our way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it. But how much of the writing that we assign in school nurtures that kind of ability? If we want to students to better understand their own reflective and reflexive abilities, it helps if we develop those capacities in ourselves. Which brings me to a story …

Once upon a time I was stuck. I wasn’t stuck in everything. Home life was great. My classes were great. My colleagues were great. But my professional development just sucked, and I was stuck within some unconsciously self-imposed boundaries.

I’m not going to dwell on what was wrong with the professional development I was experiencing at my school. I don’t really want to re-live that other than to set up what came after. I didn’t agree philosophically with the ideas and practices that were being mandated and imposed. I despised the role I was being asked to play in promoting those ideas and practices, and I was horrified at how quickly this ugly blob was expanding.

My dissatisfaction with this one area of my professional life wasn’t really affecting my classroom or personal and professional relationships, but it was affecting my self. As I drove to work or mowed the lawn or wrote in my journal, I found myself reflecting on what I disagreed with, but I found that I couldn’t do too much about it. I knew exactly what was wrong but felt relatively powerless to change it.

Have you seen that video of people stuck on an escalator? They are riding up an escalator in a mall or business center, and it suddenly stops. They go into full meltdown about how awful it is, and how they hope someone will fix it soon. In reality, all they have to do is take a few steps, and they will be off the escalator and on to wherever they were headed. Of course, there is no reason to be stuck on an escalator. Just get off the damn thing. But that was me. I was stuck on the escalator of ugly professional development for a while, too long.

This is where reflexivity comes in. As I processed all this in my journal, first I complained, then wondered, and then epiphany: Get off the escalator!

Even though I couldn’t change the problem, I could reflexively re-define how I engaged with it. So that’s what I did. I just stepped back and stopped investing in that part of my job. I still had to go to meetings and do stuff, but I did the minimum amount, and I tried not to dwell on it.

But professional development is important! As I reflected on this some more, I realized that I had a narrow understanding of what professional development opportunities were available to me.

Then some doors opened. At the NCTE convention in San Antonio, I was talking to Jodi, a teacher from suburban St. Louis. She said she thought I would like Jim Burke’s new social media site English Companion Ning.

I went home and jumped on that, and boy did I carpe that diem! I found even more incredible colleagues, including people who have become dear friends. I found a place to help other teachers, ask questions, write about my ideas and opinions, and actually collaborate with others to build online professional development opportunities for a larger community.

Those energizing connections have led me to all kinds of rewarding relationships and valuable professional experiences, including writing, publishing, and speaking opportunities; renewed energy for the classroom; and authentic collaboration.

So, exactly what realizations did I gain from all of that active reflection? Here are three:

1. I had two sets of colleagues, one on-site and one mostly online. I valued both of them, and it seemed strange to me that they didn’t know each other. To my great satisfaction, many of my online colleagues are now people I see with some regularity, and my on-site colleagues and online colleagues have even worked together on some projects.

2. I realized the difference between my job and my work. My job is where I report each day, practice my craft, try to help as many people as possible, and earn a paycheck. My work is deeper and goes beyond the school where I worked. This realization served me extremely well when I retired from that job in 2014. My job ended, but my work has not ended at all. My work continues in all kinds of interesting, rewarding ways. I’m the most un-retired retired teacher you can imagine.

3. Although my job dissatisfaction never affected my work in the classroom, it did affect my underlying attitudes. When those attitudes became more positive and when the new professional development resulted in actual learning, my teaching and professional life became even more energized.

To put a fine point on all of this, reflection helped me understand the problem. Reflexivity helped me solve it.
At last month’s National Council of Teachers of English convention in Minneapolis, I was honored to be co-chair of a session entitled “From ‘Oops’ to ‘Aha!’: Reflection as a Creative Act.” This is a slightly different version of what I talked about in that presentation. Thanks to everyone who joined us on that Sunday morning and contributed to this powerful session at NCTE15, and thanks to everyone who read about it here.

I always welcome and appreciate your comments, especially if you have ideas on how to expand on this idea at next year’s NCTE convention.

Posted in General Tagged , , , ,

Good Morning and Goodbye

Good Morning and Goodbye
Bobby Bruce
Waking up to coffee aromas on any morning is my preferred way of waking up. Throw in his wonderful cooking, and it was perfect. Sometimes I could see the steam from his delicious cooking come through my floor vent from the kitchen underneath. In the morning, he always had our favorite radio talk show on, and we’d laugh the morning away.
I had to be up early that morning, I knew that getting adequate sleep was important, but I never liked getting up at seven on a Saturday. In fact, I hated it. Not to mention, how bad I was to get myself up, but he said he’d wake me up. The thing is, he didn’t wake me up that morning, there was no coffee brewing, no radio booming, and no steam rising from my vent.
Maybe he overslept too…
My room started upstairs, in a loft. The stairs are a steep journey, but a journey well worth. At the bottom of the steps were two doors. One to the outside and the other for the bathroom. Our bathroom was never pretty; best to leave it undescribed. Our house was shared by guys, so you can guess it wasn’t always the cleanest. Our kitchen, cluttered with dishes, was pretty average. Sink, stove, fridge, but it did have the boombox, which we’d jam out with on nights where he wasn’t tired. Our kitchen, dining room and living room were all connected. From the dining room, you were like an all seeing eyeball. Yeah, our house was tiny, but with all of us together, it didn’t matter. We made the best of it every day. We had the most fun in our living room. We didn’t have cable or internet, so our TV time consisted of rentals and Friends marathons. My favorite thing was that he would always make the tastiest popcorn. Some could say, that this was my happy place. Not anymore.
That morning, last October, was eerily cold, heck, maybe he forgot to turn the heat on as well. October wasn’t as cold to him as it was to us, and the old fart was getting more forgetful. I walked into the quiet kitchen to see my brother preparing to go. We both had to be gone by eight, so we could make it to Bemidji for Upward Bound, a college prep program, by nine. We didn’t want to keep Jada waiting. I didn’t honestly think I had the time or effort to make food, so gas station food sounded pretty swell. I didn’t want to bother waking up my youngest brother, Adam. He would see me later. I did decide to go wake up dad and wish him farewell, maybe even give him a little crap for not waking me up. Matt told me he was in the living room hunched over the couch. What did that mean?
My dad was well renowned for his awkward sleeping positions and his terribly bad snoring. But dad’s knees were bad. Why was he sitting like that? I knew he wasn’t asleep, based on the fact that his snoring was nonexistent. Maybe he was stretching. He liked to stretch. Or, maybe he was just waiting for me to scratch his back. He loved it when I did that. . When I made it to the living room, I got the vibe that something was terribly wrong.
Very weird.
It didn’t feel right, leaving him like that, so I asked him if he needed some help getting back on the couch. After about five seconds of silence, he said yeah. Silly dad. Why does he need my help? Maybe he is in some sort of deep sleep, like those episodes people have when they sleep talk and interact quite well. Coming from my dad, I’d expect it. But he was awake… I knew that much. I started to lift him back onto the couch, except he wasn’t using any effort; none at all. That’s when I called Matt in from the kitchen to come help me hoist our large father back to a comfortable spot. He is a big guy. I was proud that we lifted him up. Then I took a second to observe my strangely limp father. His left arm, we accidently got it smushed under him. In any normal situation he would have yelped. I mean, it did look to be in a pretty painful spot. Matt helped him put it into a comfortable place. Dad must have really been tired to be acting like this. What was going on?
We could hear Jada pull into the driveway, and that’s when we said our goodbyes. I have a rule that comes to hugging. I prefer a person to use two hands when they hug. My dad knew that. But when I hugged him, he didn’t hug back. I looked at him straight in the eyes. His eyes were not focusing on mine. I told him that I loved him. I dont think it registered to him right away. But in a slurred speech, he said it back. Then Matt hugged him, and we left. When I walked out that front door, I felt sick. Something was terribly wrong.I knew that because of the staleness that wouldn’t leave my mouth. We hopped into Jada’s car and started to drive off. We explained to Jada what just happened; the condition my father was in. The thing she told me made my heart sink.
“Call your mom, it sounds like your dad is having a stroke.”
The next week was the hardest, most stressful week of my life, and that scenario of me waking up and seeing dad that way played like an endless record, haunting every second of my existence. Why didn’t I see it sooner? Was I that stubborn to see my own father was in pain? He now only has use of the right side of his body. He thinks slower and will hardly look people in the eyes. His hugs, still warm and cuddly, are one armed, but for him, I make an exception to my rule. I still blamed myself for not getting him help sooner. Somedays, I still catch myself blaming it all on me. The pain I felt, the pain I still feel, stays bottled up and locked away. It aches. But, we move on.
If dad would have been healthy, maybe none of this would have happened. We’d still be a happy family. I would still be able to visit him every weekend and have him take care of me, instead of me taking care of him. I miss the serious side of my father, the big scary guy. I miss his guidance; his wise words. That side of him died after the stroke, never to be found again. He still has his humor though. I still have him. He still hugs me, holds me and tells me he loves me. Except I feel as if our roles have flopped. I tuck him in at night and wish him sweet dreams, just like he used to for me. It’s as if I am fathering him; keeping him out of trouble. It’s not so bad. At least I still have him… But… I miss him…
I thank God I still have him.. I look at his silly grin when we drink coffee, and it makes me happy. Some mornings when I play our favorite radio talk show, I’ll make him breakfast and we will sit and talk about the dumbest things like a father and son are supposed to do. It makes me feel better. I had a lot of time to look back on what happened and located the facts. Dad had bad health. I knew that. But I was so blind. Blind enough to forget all warning signs. It’s all weird to think about. I try to ignore it as I sip my coffee and chit chat with my best buddy; my hero.

Posted in Writings by Students

Still Smiling

Strong. Webster’s defines it as an adjective, “having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks,” or “able to withstand great force or pressure .”Everyone has struggles and trials in their life.But the challenges we face do not mean we can’t go on. They simply mean we must discover how we truly handle stress. Then we change because of what we have accomplished. But the only way to get through these rough times is to not only stand firm in what we believe but to also be strong in who we are.
I sit by my mother’s bedside, the dim light of the bedside lamp giving off an eerie light in the dark of the night. My grandmother leans over my mother, carefully and gently washing the stitches along her spine. I turn my eyes to my mother’s face. Her eyes are squeezed shut and her lip is caught between her teeth as she breathes quickly.I was sure she would cry; I surely would. Having surgery on your spine to fix two discs and then to wake up and find you had nerve damage due to a doctor’s slip of the hand, would have left me in a puddle of my own tears. I look away. She doesn’t make a sound, but I know she wants to.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea-bag, you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Roosevelt was right, in many ways, however not only women are like tea-bags. All people naturally keep a barrier between themselves and others. We use this “wall” to keep ourselves from entering situations that make us uncomfortable or puts us in danger. But what happens when someone or something breaks that wall, and you’re left exposed? This is what Eleanor was referring to as the “hot water.” The hot water is any powerful or intense situation that requires you to show your true self and how much you can withstand. Each person’s threshold is different.
My grandmother moves and begins to help my mother sit up, often a lengthy and tearful process. Tonight I move to help, putting one arm gently under my mother’s side and waiting. I watch as she takes three deep breaths, and then holds the fourth as she begins to move. My grandmother and I steady her, and help her to a sitting position on the bed. She breathed heavily, clutching the bedspread as her life support.
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t,” stated Rikki Rogers. Strength isn’t always defined by how many bench presses you can do, or how much weight a person can lift. Sometimes being strong means getting through the rough times, like losing a loved one or getting in an accident. Strength can come from the little things in life too, like finishing a paper you never thought you would, or getting an A on a math test you were sure you failed. All of these things, although they are tough to endure, make you stronger in the end.
My grandmother holds my mother’s hand, steadying her as my mother slowly stands. Her hand grips my grandmother’s like a vice, her fingers wrapped so tightly around her hand, I wasn’t sure if she was cutting off circulation. Slowly, they walked towards the bathroom, my mother limping and stopping every few steps to catch her breath. But my mother never stopped trying. She kept pushing forward in the coming months, getting better day by day. As Mary J. Blige said, “There’s so many things that life is, and no matter how many breakthroughs, trials will exist and we’re going to get through it. Just be strong.”

After a year, I noticed my mother smiled more often. Somehow she still smiled after all she had been through. She still limped, and she could no longer work at her job at the hospital. But her outlook on life did not change. She still loved her garden, and she continued to bake every day. She didn’t let a setback in her life stop her from living. She picked up from where she left off, and she made do with what she had.She showed me what it meant to be resilient; she defined strong.

Work Cited
“Mary J. Blige Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA:
Merriam-Webster, 2003. Print.

“Richard Rogers Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

“Eleanor Roosevelt Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

“Famous Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Posted in Writings by Students

Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

The first week of high school. It’s filled with fear and anticipation. Most of us have or will experience this feeling at one time or another. But as we find out, things usually turn out okay.
I was feeling pretty good as I came home off the bus that friday, my first official week of freshman year completed successfully without any mishaps. Everything was going to be okay, I had thought. The sun was still bright in the sky and I could feel its warmth on my arms as I reached for the key and unlocked the front door. I could already hear the chorus of my mother’s three small dogs, ankle biters some people like to call them, as I turned the key in the lock. I opened the door and was met by a swarm of wiggling tails, fluffy ears and wet tongues.
Closing the door behind me, I set my backpack already filled with homework onto the porch floor. Sighing, I walked into the kitchen and filled one of mom’s clear plastic cups with water before walking into the well-lit living room where my mom was sitting in a lazy-boy recliner reading her daily newspaper.
“Hey mom,” I said unenthusiastically. She looked up from the newspaper and smiled.I see her face already showing laugh lines and wrinkles, yet still looking like the same mom I’ve always known.
“Hey honey, how was school?” she asked, setting her newspaper aside on the small side table.
“Good, but I have homework.” I mumbled, spitting the word homework out %like it was taboo.
Mom laughed, “I know what we should do then, let’s go riding. That will cheer you up. Go get the horses saddled up, I’ll be right out.” Practically running, I tugged on my riding boots and bolted out the door, not bothering to stop for a helmet or gloves. I slowed myself down as I got out toward the barn and finally reached the pasture. I was greeted by the *sound of sixteen thundering hooves, and for those of us who are bad at math, that means four horses. I pushed open the rough wooden barn door, faded with age and weather. I grabbed two halters from the nails on the wall, one blue and one pink. I stepped back out into the afternoon light and pushed open the gate.
“You guys, move out of the way, honestly.” I waved my arms to signal to the horses to back up from the gate as I tried in vain to open it successfully. I finally pushed my way through and got into the paddock.
“Shasta, Apollo, come here.” I said, in hopes Magick and Dancer, would somehow understand that they weren’t being fed like they thought. I quickly slipped the pink halter onto the mare, Shasta, my mother’s somewhat short horse. She was a lovely chestnut color, with a golden mane and tail. She dipped her head down, resting it on my shoulder as I slipped the buckle into the third hole of her halter. I quickly snapped a lead rope onto the small hoop at the bottom and then walked over to Apollo. Apollo was my newest horse, a slightly taller gelding, and a stunning golden color over his entire body like a sunflower, with a white mane and tail. His eyes were a deep chocolate brown filled with kindness.
“It’s okay boy, I’m just gonna put this halter on, and we are gonna go for a little ride.” I murmured before gently sliding it onto his nose and over his ears. I snapped another lead rope onto Apollo’s halter and led the two horses out, quickly turning around after making sure they were clear of the gate to keep the other two in. As we walked to the trailer sitting beside the barn, the other two horses nickered to their friends as if they may never see them again. I finally reached the trailer and I tied the horses to the bright red hooks, one on each end. I efficiently tied slip knots that could easily be undone in case a horse spooked or fell as I had been taught. As I walked back to the barn to grab the grooming kit, I saw my mother appear from around the corner of the house, her ankle biters trailing behind her.
I walked into the barn and grabbed the grooming kit from a shelf on the dusty, cobweb infested barn wall and walked back to the horses. When I returned, mom was already busy getting tack, which was all the saddles and bridles, and setting it out on the ground beside the horses. Quickly, she set about her routine of saddling and bridling her horse. I watched her with awe as I often did, amazed at how little effort it seemed to take her as her hands, worn with years of work and beginning to succumb to arthritis on cold days, somehow tied those small knots and put every buckle in its place. I watched as she so nimbly lifted her saddle and flung it on her horse’s back, her small, short frame greatly outsized in width by the saddle yet so easily she seemed to handle it with grace. I quickly did the same, saddling and bridling Apollo. Mom looked nervous as I unhooked him from the trailer and placed my foot in the stirrup.
“Maybe I should just lead you around first, we don’t really know him that well yet,” she stated as she stroked Shasta’s face, her fingers knotting in her mane.
“Okay, just untie his leadrope.” I nodded to the rope now dangling from the hook where he had been tied. She undid the rope and snapped it back onto Apollo’s halter and led us away to the west pasture, where there were no horses. As she opened the steel bar gate, and let the chain fall, Apollo spooked, jumping to the side. I grasped the horn of my saddle, and quickly pulled back on my reins. He quieted quickly and I let him stand for a few minutes to relax before I urged him forward into the pasture. Mom walked at a fast pace beside us, with the rope dangling loosely from her hands. Her dogs ran freely around us, sniffing the old piles of dung and they occasionally ran off to chase imaginary squirrels.I smelled the sweet late summer air, the smell of leather, polish, and the scent of grain and hay surronding me.As we circled the pasture for the third time, the sun was starting to wane and I was beginning to think I could go on my own soon. As one of my mother’s dog sprinted past, it ran right beneath Apollo’s stomach. He spooked, his hind feet going into the air and sending me soaring from my saddle. All I could think mid-flight was “Land on your side, protect your head.” And I did just that. Unfortunately, this also led to my arm snapping. I knew as soon as I hit the ground that it was broke, the familiar sting made me cradle it close to my body as I rolled onto my back, the memories of previous broken bones flooding my mind; my right arm twice, my tail bone, and my right ankle. I could taste the dirt in my mouth. But that was momentarily forgotten as I tried to sit up to watch Apollo and my mother as she struggled to contain him, as he reared, bucked and finally she lost her grip and he galloped from the pasture and my sights.
Soon my mother’s voice came into my consciousness, and she ran to my side.
“Everything is gonna be okay, Emily, where does it hurt? Your arm? Can you move?” Tears started to roll down her cheeks, as I’m sure she blamed herself for what had just happened. The tears roll down her face, slipping into the wrinkles and nooks and crannies. I took a deep breath and sat up, pain shooting from my arm and right knee. I looked down at my arm for the first time and noticed it was crooked and bent like a broken crayon.My mother’s hands reach out to steady me. I was grateful then more than ever for their strength as she supported me. By this time my father had driven the van out to the pasture, as he had heard my mom yelling and saw the horse running riderless. My parents helped me stand and climb gingerly into the car.
As my father buckled me in, his large, rough, calloused hands struggling with the seat belt, I suddenly remembered the horse.
I watched my mother gently walk up to Apollo, running her hands gently along his neck before firmly grasping the lead rope. I watched her walk him back to the trailer and unsaddle him, take off his bridle and then lead him back into the pasture and let him go.
I started to think back to what had just happened as I wait for my mother to walk back to the van. Apollo spooked when one of the dog’s ran underneath of him. My best guess is he had at one point been bitten by a dog, and he now was afraid of them. I didn’t blame him for his past experiences. But I knew now that because of what had just happened mom wasn’t going to be happy, and he wasn’t going to work for us. We almost always rode with the dogs, and if Apollo was afraid of them, he would need to find a new home.
My mom climbed into the back of the van and slid the door shut, her body sagged into the seat. My dad put the van in drive and headed for the hospital. My mother looked older now with worry. I studied her in the rearview mirror on the drive into town. The lines in her face seemed more defined somehow, and her hands shook slightly as she grasped the seat belt next to her chest. No parent wants to see their child get hurt. She had always been strong for me, but as we pulled into the hospital drive through and the nurses appeared to help me to the nearest emergency room bed I saw tears welling in her eyes again. Now it was my turn to be strong for my mother.
I looked at my arm again as the nurses started to move around me, probing. I winced as they reached my knee, which I would later learn was sprained, and yelped when they went to put a thermometer on my broken middle finger. I hadn’t felt the pain of my finger through the pain of my arm. As I sat waiting for the x-rays, I smiled. I may be in pain now, but I knew everything was going to alright. My arm would heal, and I would be back to riding in no time. My mom walked in and asked how I was doing, looking with worry at my swollen arm.
“I’m gonna be alright, mom.” I said, smiling up at her. Her face relaxed, looking more like the mom I was used to. Her returning smile told me more than anything that I would be more than okay, I would be ready for anything.

Posted in Writings by Students

I am a Slave to the Writing Process

Writers should write for themselves. I’ve stated this many times to my peers and teachers alike. Although writers may write to entertain others, it is still for themselves. They like to know someone picked up their work and gave it the time of the day. They like to know someone took their work and laid down in bed with it for a few minutes. They like to know young adults gab about the characters in their story. And they like to know someone spent a buck or two. Writers write for themselves. They write for the inner satisfaction. That is why I am not a writer and why my writing process isn’t sincere.
I do not sit around and fantasize about a character who must go on a quest. I do not conjure up a magical world in which an amazing, epic journey takes place. I get up at 6 AM, shower, drive to school, go to my classes, attend drama practice, do homework, eat something, and go to bed. I live in reality.
When I come to school every morning, I sit down in the commons and check my schedule for the week. My head is full of spinning, groggy nonsense. I usually just sit there and think of nothing but the ensuing doom that is the work load I will receive throughout the day. And I do receive it. Worksheets and projects and papers galore. So much I could dump it on the ground, out of my folders, and recreate a whole tree out of it. I could give a tree life again. I could restore the natural order.
And I work so hard. I work so, so hard.
For one thing.

College . . .

I work so hard for more schooling. A harder education. Four more years of it, to be exact. I spend all my time striving for the green light to attend a university that will send me spiraling into financial debt. This whole process just seems so redundant.
If I had it my way, maybe I would go to college. From my classes, I would learn how to speak really clean Spanish. Meanwhile, I would be working and saving my money. Then, once I got out of college, I would take a train down to South America and evade my student loans. I would change my name and spend my days living a carefree, open-minded life, working in some trash hole restaurant, where the kitchens were stained with grease, but the food was authentic. I could rise in the morning, greeted by the mild sun. The wind would blow on my tanned skin. Maybe I would just keep traveling from place to place. Perhaps I would meet friends in every country and I could stay with them when I visit, if they were so gracious. Maybe I’d lose weight. Maybe. That all certainly sounds like a great novel. But I don’t daydream. And I’m not a writer. So forget that.

That’s what I would do. If I could do it.
But I can’t.
Like I said, I live in reality.

So, I get up at 6 AM, shower, drive to school, go to my classes, attend drama practice, do homework, eat something, and go to bed. So I pump out papers endlessly in the hopes I will pull through the school year with good grades to impress my family and my peers and my teachers. And so I will apply to a nice college and attend classes there. I will work endlessly to pay back my student loans.
Writers should write for themselves. I write for others. Although writers may write to entertain others, it is still for themselves. Although I may write to entertain others, it’s really just to impress them. Writers like to know someone picked up their work and gave it the time of the day. I like to know a teacher picked up my work and graded it in a timely manner. Writers like to know someone took their work and laid down in bed with it for a few minutes. I like to know a teacher checked off all the appropriate boxes I was required to fill. Writers like to know young adults gab about the characters in their story. I like to know young adults are on the same track as me. And writers like to know someone spent a buck or two. I like to know I have a buck or two. Writers write for themselves. I write for others. Writers write for the inner satisfaction. I write for others’ inner satisfaction. That is why I am not a writer and why my writing process isn’t sincere.
There is no process. Just a mad dash to get it written in a satisfactory manner in the hopes it will come back to me with high marks. If that’s not a strong enough image to end on, then please picture a young adult who is typing away on her laptop feverishly, with thoughts of financial doom and existential crisis looming over her in a sadly cartoonish thought bubble over her head.

Posted in Writings by Students

Life in a College Writing Center


Although I’m busy doing several different jobs in my un-retirement, one of my favorites is tutoring in a college writing center. Maybe some understanding of my work there can be useful to high school teachers as they seek to fulfill the elusive nature of what it means for their students to be “college-ready” writers.

I work with college students on their writing for classes from across the curriculum. About half of the writing I see originates in English classes; the other half comes from other departments, most commonly nursing, art, history, engineering, speech, and psychology. I also see students seeking help for writing personal statements as they prepare to transfer to other schools, applying for internships or other work experiences, and developing ideas to use in their first-year seminars.

Here is the dilemma for college writers. Each student takes an English class, right? In that class he may work on organization, argument, voice, synthesizing ideas from a variety of sources, and overall coherence. Then he goes to his next class—let’s say it’s a nursing class—and the writing expectations are completely different. The writing in a nursing class is expected to be devoid of any personal flavor—no synonyms, no transitions, and definitely no opinions. Then he goes to his history class where his writing is expected to be objective at times and subjective at other times. In each class, the instructor sees writing a certain way and usually has very little understanding of the writing expected of the student in his other classes. But that student must navigate all of these expectations and switch gears for each writing assignment. My work in the writing center is to help our students see that dilemma more clearly: Although the instructors contradict each other, they are merely responding to the needs of their disciplines.

What do I find so gratifying about this work? First of all, it’s one-on-one. Each student comes in with a writing-related problem, and we work together to make progress on it. Sometimes that involves a quick lesson on a mechanical or usage issue. Sometimes they know they are missing transitions, or a conclusion, or examples. Some are mystified by documentation requirements. The guiding principle in the writing center is this: Developing the writer is more important than developing the writing. In other words, we’re not focused on “fixing” this paper right now; we’re more interested in helping the student become a better writer.

My favorite tutoring sessions are those that involve brainstorming. This happens when a student arrives and says, “I have this assignment, and I don’t know how to start.” I take a look at the assignment, clarify the student’s understanding, and then I ask, “Is it OK if I take some notes while we talk?” Then I ask some guiding questions, writing down the parts that sound most interesting. As the student continues to explain her thoughts, I try to see what parts fit together, and how it might work as a coherent response to the assignment. At some point, I’ll say, “How about this?” and then show her a rough outline of her own ideas that might just work as an approach. The looks on their faces when they see an outline of their own words just waiting to be fleshed out in paragraphs is enormously gratifying.

Another very cool aspect of working in the writing center comes from the fact that so many of our students are new to America for a variety of reasons. I learn so much from them! I’ve had fascinating conversations about Jamaican cooking, Polish World War II heroes, Nigerian schooling, and how Russians view themselves as different from Americans. (“Americans like to have fun. Russians are sooooo serious all the time.”) I’ve always known that one of the advantages of being a writing teacher is improving my understanding of human nature, and working in the writing center definitely reinforces that advantage.

What implications does all of this have for high school teachers trying to achieve “college-readiness”? Well …
1. We can avoid drinking the kool-aid of the standardized testing industry that tries to define college-ready writing in terms of their for-profit test platform. I’ve never seen a standardized test that approximates the writing expected in college. The new ACT writing test is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come close to the demands of a typical college class.
2. We need to prepare students for writing in many different modes. Expressive, narrative, objective, research, expository, analytical, and persuasive writing are all alive and well on college campuses—and students frequently must write in more than one of those modes during the same semester in different classes.
3. We can help students become comfortable with talking about their writing. Conferring with high school students about their writing, and helping them become comfortable with asking questions about their papers will serve them very well as they meet with professors and tutors to discuss their work. A bonus for high school teachers who do writing conferences is the relationship-building that happens when we talk with students about their words and ideas.

As always, thank you for the work you do, and for reading this.

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How to Prepare Students for the New ACT Writing Test

tmb-writing-promptThose of us involved in helping students prepare for the ACT test should know about some significant changes in the writing portion that rolled out in September. ACT calls the changes “enhancements,” and that’s probably a pretty good word because the changes are positive ones, at least in my opinion.

Here are the major changes:
1. The writing test is now 40 minutes instead of 30 minutes.
2. The format is now focused on “contemporary issues” rather than on specifically school-related topics. The first new topic, for example, was “Bad Laws.”
3. While the original ACT writing test asked students to choose and defend one side or the other of a topic, the new writing test has a wider scope. Students are now given brief perspectives on an issue, and they are required to evaluate those perspectives within a framework that includes their own point of view on the issue.
4. The scoring is different. The previous writing test holistically scored essays on a 1-12 scale and figured that into a Combined English/Writing score. The new version will score the essay 1-36, but instead of a holistic approach, the scorers will give separate ratings in four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Organization, Development and Support, and Language and Conventions. The essay score will be part of a new ELA score, which is the average of the ACT English, writing, and reading subscores.

How can we prepare students for these changes? First, we need to familiarize them with the format changes. They should know about the time change, as well as how to use the space provided on the test for planning and pre-writing. The pre-writing questions and blank space can serve as a useful checklist and “sandbox” for writers as they make sure each of the prompt’s expectations is fulfilled.

Second, we need to help students understand that the structure of this essay will be different from those written for the old test. While the old either-or writing test asked students to formulate and defend a one-dimensional opinion, the new test requires students to articulate a more sophisticated thesis. The essay’s main idea needs to be complex enough to allow evaluation of each of the provided perspectives as well the writer’s own point of view. It’s no longer “Here are three reasons why I’m right.” Now it’s more like “I believe because . Therefore, I consider Perspective A more valid, and Perspectives B and C less valid.”

The writing approach required on the new test is more in line with what college writing is actually like. The ACT is a college aptitude test, so it’s now more likely to assess a student’s preparedness for the kinds of writing he will encounter in post-secondary classes. The old version of the writing test always seemed to me like it was a high school achievement test rather than a college aptitude test.

My only concern with the new test is that the breakdown of those domain components doesn’t seem to recognize or allow for writing with exceptional style. If a student’s language is mechanically perfect but otherwise flat, what Language and Conventions subscore should she expect? I’d really like to see the rating markers within each domain of the rubric, and maybe those will eventually be made public.

Click here for ACT’s sample of the new writing test format.

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When Students Cheat (And When They Don’t)

Academic cheating is not my favorite topic to think, talk, or write about. Too negative. But when cheating surfaces in our schools and classrooms, we’re better off if we know how to approach it and respond.

This blog post was jump-started by a Chicago Tribune article that quoted my distaste for sites like, so I’ll begin there. I’m not a big believer in – a subscription web site that some schools use to prevent plagiarism. Schools that use require students to upload their work to the site before submitting it to the teacher with a “receipt” indicating that it has cleared’s plagiarism detectors.

Why should we base our schools’ cheating policies on such a presumption of guilt? When we use procedures to prevent cheating that impact non-cheaters, we contaminate their attitudes toward learning. Schools requiring students to submit their work to before it will be accepted by a teacher are saying to kids, “We don’t trust you, not a single one of you. We can’t catch you cheating, but we don’t trust you.” None of us would want that kind of presumptive attitude applied to our work, and students feel the same way. Using has enormous implications for student morale in our schools.

I’m sure the corporate honchos at have their legal ducks in a row, but there are still some ethical ducks quacking when we require students to provide their academic work to a for-profit company before we will evaluate it. Consider that uses our students’ work to enhance its database, which they then sell to other schools. When we require students to use, we’re pimping our students’ writing and their intellectual efforts. It may be legal but it’s not right.

Some educators cite technology as the reason for an increase in student cheating. I can’t agree. I don’t think there are more cheaters today. Cheaters are going to cheat, or at least try to cheat. A certain percentage of people are amoral, and technology doesn’t make that number go up or down. It might change the mode of cheating, but it doesn’t change the percentage.

On the contrary, technology is the biggest accelerator of learning in generations. Prohibiting technology in schools because of concerns about cheating is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. After all, students used to use crib notes for cheating but we never considered prohibiting paper! The problem is the behavior, not the devices. If we deal with the unethical behavior, the devices will be a benefit and not a problem.

As I said in the Trib article, the best way to prevent plagiarism and cheating is to design learning experiences that cannot be accomplished through cheating. If we ask students to report learning that can be looked up on or copied from an online source, we haven’t really asked them to learn anything. Many schools, classes, and teachers are moving toward the “flipped” model of instruction where technology allows students to spend more time discovering and synthesizing information in ways that are uniquely relevant to them rather than taking in information from a teacher and then regurgitating it on a test. When students report on that kind of learning, it’s highly individualized but still covers the curricular objectives, and is therefore less likely to be the result of cheating. (Or if their reporting is copied from someone else, it’s painfully obvious.) This is the kind of learning that prepares our students for living in a technology-filled 21st century. Teaching students to use technology effectively and ethically is one of our responsibilities.

So what should happen when a student cheats? Cheating is not an academic problem; cheating is a disciplinary problem. A cheater makes a behavioral choice to cheat, and that behavior needs to have some clear disciplinary consequences. Schools are places of learning, and students need to learn that choosing to cheat is not OK. Schools have a cultural obligation to promote ethical behavior.

One of the most uncomfortable situations for a teacher is when we suspect a student is cheating, but we can’t catch her or him, and we can’t prove that cheating is going on. How do we punish cheaters that we can’t catch? My answer is you can’t punish someone without proof. It’s hard to do, but my advice is to let it go if you don’t have proof.

But when you have the proof, that student needs to have consequences that will help her or him learn that cheating is wrong. If you are a teacher with the authority to apply disciplinary measures, do it when you have the proof. If you work in a school where administration needs to be involved, insist on consequences and follow-up with those administrators to make sure that the consequences have been applied.

If you are an administrator reading this, please consider that it’s almost always easier for a teacher to look the other way on cheating situations and just avoid all the unpleasantness that goes with it. So when a teacher comes to you with cheating concerns, please take the situation seriously. If a teacher brings you suspicions of cheating, please listen and provide your best counsel. But if a teacher brings you proof of cheating, punish the cheaters and make it hurt. Don’t play “good cop” and give second chances. Don’t hide behind IEPs or 504 Plans and say your hands are tied. No valid IEP or 504 can consider cheating as acceptable behavior. If your school becomes a cesspool of cheating, good kids will get the message that cheating is accepted and even expected at your school. Authentic learning will stop at your school if cheating becomes the norm.

So, the best way to approach cheating is to prevent, prevent, prevent. We can do this by fostering environments in our schools and classrooms that emphasize learning over grades. We can preclude plagiarism and other forms of cheating by designing creative learning experiences that only work when students report their own individual learning experiences. We can make cheating less likely by modeling openness, honesty and ethical behavior in our dealings with students. If we model respect in our classes, students are more likely to act respectfully and less likely to cheat.

But cheating will still happen on occasion, and each of us is likely to deal with at least a handful of nasty cheating episodes in our teaching careers. When students cheat, we need to keep our emotions in check, maintain our professionalism, and apply consequences to that behavior that make the student more likely to choose different behaviors in the future.

Please don’t let plagiarism and cheating concerns become your primary focus at work. That’s not healthy. Enjoy your work. Now let’s talk about something else.

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How Do We Teach Style in Research Writing?

research_0“And this needs to be in MLA format.”

Those of us who teach in the humanities frequently ask our students to use MLA format when writing research documentation. Because a lot of research writing tends to come through English classes, especially in high school, students are most often exposed to MLA rules for citing sources.

Although there is nothing wrong with that, teachers should know that APA style is also alive and well on college campuses. Focusing exclusively on MLA might cause problems for students when they step foot on a college campus. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for teaching research writing in high school and introductory college writing classes.

Let’s take a step back. MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association, an organization focused on the use and study of language, primarily in academic settings associated with the humanities. APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association, an organization focused on all aspects of psychology that has developed a set of rules and standards for scientific writing used across many disciplines. Although MLA and APA are the most common formats used on college campuses, there are some professors who require papers written in other formats: Turabian, Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Because college students are likely to encounter multiple documentation formats in their classes, introducing students to research writing by requiring them to memorize the specifics of a particular documentation format is less important than helping them know how to find the right format. After all, the formatting rules change from time to time rendering obsolete those memorized specifics. If a student knows MLA and only MLA, confusion can arise when college professors require other formats.

Although I work with many humanities students using MLA format for documentation, one of my biggest eye-openers from working in our college’s writing center is the depth involved in the term “APA style.” Papers written in “APA style” for a nursing, psychology, or sociology class look very different from interpretive papers for an English class or a narrative for a child development class.

In other words, an individual college student is required to write in widely varying styles as he goes from class to class, so as we prepare students for college writing, we need to make them aware of these different expectations.

For example, in addition to documentation and page layout, APA style actually includes a rhetorical stance that emphasizes precision, clarity, and objectivity, which is consistent with APA’s scientific orientation.

apa pub manWhile more expressive writing may strive for variety by using synonyms, the APA Publication Manual suggests that using synonyms is risky in scientific writing: “The intention is commendable, but by using synonyms you may unintentionally suggest a subtle difference. Therefore, choose synonyms with care. The discreet use of pronouns can often relieve the monotonous repetition of a term without introducing ambiguity.”

APA style also prefers “economy of expression”: “Say only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” (“Publication” as used here clearly refers to academic or technical journals.)

For precision and clarity, APA suggests avoiding colloquial expressions and jargon, and being careful when using pronouns or comparisons.

APA style also has no use for what the Publication Manual calls “linguistic devices”: “Devices that attract attention to words, sounds, or other embellishments instead of to ideas are inappropriate in scientific writing. Avoid heavy alliteration, rhyming, poetic expressions, and clichés. Use metaphors sparingly … Use figurative expressions with restraint and colorful expressions with care.”

Perhaps the most important element of writing in APA style is the issue of bias. The APA Publication Manual devotes seven pages to guidelines for reducing bias in language relevant to gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and “historical and interpretive inaccuracies.” Objectivity is obviously important in scientific writing: “If your writing reflects respect for your participants and your readers and if you write with appropriate specificity and precision, you will be contributing to the goal of accurate, unbiased communication.”

So, if we want students to be college-ready writers when it comes to research, here are some suggestions:

1. Provide students with practice in a variety of rhetorical stances, including those without traces of subjectivity or bias. In an earlier post, I wrote about how students think they are not supposed to use “I” in their writing, although they frequently misunderstand the intention of that rule. Be the teacher who helps writers understand how to adapt their writing to all kinds of situations.

2. Provide students with practice in following in detail at least one specific documentation format, but make sure they are aware of the existence of others.

3. Help students understand the mechanics and purposes of documentation. Be aware of the existence of automatic citation generators such as EasyBib, BibMe (my favorite), and Citation Machine. These are amazing time-savers, but they work more smoothly for those who understand what is being created. Although students are responsible for the results of their work, those who use these sites are not cheating.. In fact, many databases and college libraries now provide citations in a variety of formats alongside the entries so that users can simply cut-and-paste them.

expository_books4. Help students understand the dichotomy of research writing. Research is not writing, and writing is not research. They are two separate activities. As we said in Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, “Good writers can create sloppy, meaningless research projects, and good researchers can write research papers that are dreadful to read.”

Of course, research writing is just one element of a healthy writing curriculum. In addition to the research writing discussed here, young writers need opportunities to practice narrative, analytical, expository, personal, and creative writing. Students who are comfortable and competent in all of those modes are ready to face not only academic writing challenges but can also embrace writing as a vital, fulfilling means of expression.

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Trust Your “Primary Wisdom”

What role can and should intuition play in a teacher’s decision-making process? Since first hearing the phrase “data-driven instruction,” I feel like the importance and credibility of teacher instincts have been downplayed and denigrated. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that intuition is the “primary wisdom,” and I tend to agree.

I have quite a few years of teaching experience to draw upon, so when my gut tells me something is the right way or the wrong way to proceed, I feel that impulse with a pretty high level of confidence. Most of the time, I’m able to articulate a rationale for why my instincts are good, but I never have much empirical data to go along with that rationale.

So what role does “data” play in my decision-making? Well, how do we define data? If we’re talking about statistical reports based on conflicting research projects, I don’t find that very helpful. Far too often I’ve seen researchers generate conflicting data. Far too many times I’ve seen objective data cherry-picked and used subjectively by leaders who are bent on imposing a specific philosophy or agenda. I can’t count how many times data has been presented to me as gospel when it was generated in very different contexts from my own.

Data based on traditional research models has never been very helpful to me in solving real-world problems. The best data I receive is when I ask students, either individually or as a class, “So, did this work for you? What helped you understand? What seemed frustrating or irrelevant about this activity?” What they tell me is golden. I consider it, sift it with my own perceptions, and almost always end up learning something that I can use next time.

Although I respect the research process, the truth is that most classroom teachers simply don’t have the time or resources to properly frame and conduct a valid research project. We’re sort of busy doing school. Unfortunately, that leaves us with either accepting data that comes to us from other sources—some of them with shady track records—or relying on more subjective, qualitative, anecdotal forms of data to inform our decision making. Even if we had the means to conduct more empirical research projects in our schools, the findings would be most applicable to our own settings and of more limited value anywhere else.

Am I right to trust direct reports from my students and my own instincts over empirical data derived from other contexts and presented to me by people who have obvious–and what I might consider misguided—agendas? If my intuition is unclear, or if the situation is new to me, I’m perfectly willing to consult other sources. I particularly admire Robert Marzano’s work in synthesizing the results of research projects with similar focuses in order to hierarchically organize the most important findings of those projects.

I invite readers here to join me in trusting your instincts and the words of your students. Those sources are not wrong. They’re important “primary wisdom.”

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Chapter One Reflection

Well, we just finished the Chapter One Writing Assignment, please leave your comments on thoughts here. I saw both positive and negative qualities throughout the process. I am most please that I have 100% completion and on time! I would like some suggestions on how to improve both peer review and revise process. Have a great night!.

Posted in Writings by Students

The Mariner and Me: Telling Our Stories to Help Students (and Ourselves) Reflect

magritte_grande-familleStudents are usually interested in developing a résumé: leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, service projects, etc. They carefully choose and articulate each crumb of success and arrange them so that they will present the best possible version of themselves.

But what about creating a failure résumé? A recent blog post by Angela Skinner Orr entitled “#FML (Fail My Life): A Failure Résumé” inspired by Tina Seelig’s 2009 blog post “FAIL in order to SUCCEED” has me thinking about the power of reflection as an important tool for teachers.

One of the most important traits of an excellent teacher is a growth mindset—constantly searching for ways to improve one’s craft. Reflection—the act of stepping back and analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, either in writing or in collaborative discussion—is an important practice to develop.

As we reflectively process an experience or decision, we are not only generating new ways to benefit from what happened, we are also thinking about our own thinking and what we can learn from it. This deepens our understanding of how thinking and learning operate, and we can use that new learning for the benefit of our students and ourselves.

When we incorporate the results of our reflection into our practice, we may try new concepts or approaches, or we may try old concepts in new ways. These re-boots can then serve as fuel for future reflection.

I’m especially excited about helping students become more reflective. Learners become better at thinking when they better understand their own cognition. That failure résumé is a brilliant exercise for just this kind of activity, and Orr’s blog post can serve as an excellent model.

I would suggest introducing the failure résumé by telling a story to your students. Tell them about a time you struggled or failed. I guarantee they will pay attention. There is just something about a teacher telling a personal story revealing vulnerability that students respect.

Last year I told my class a story I’d never told anyone before. We were studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which a mariner kills an albatross for no apparent reason and suffers both internal shame and public humiliation because of his act.

I began, “This reminds me of a time when I did a really stupid thing that I’ve never told anyone about.”

Do you think students who were moments ago less than enthused about the Coleridge poem perked up a bit? Oh, yeah.

“When I was about ten or eleven, I was really into archery. We had a big field behind the house, and I set up targets. Eventually I got pretty good at it. Across the road from the field our neighbors had an old barn and some ponies. I was free to roam their property, including the barn which was home to quite a few pigeons in addition to the ponies. One day I was shooting arrows in our field and then wandered over to the neighbor’s barn carrying my bow and arrow. The ponies were outside, but the rafters were full of pigeons.”

(Yes, the students are still locked on, and Coleridge is far, far away.)

“For absolutely no reason, I drew an arrow, took aim, and shot one of those roosting pigeons, sticking it grotesquely to the wooden barn wall. I immediately felt terrible about it. I climbed up a little ladder, pulled the arrow and the pigeon from the wall, went outside and threw the pigeon in some weeds, and put the arrow back in my scabbard.

“Until just now, I have never told that story. I have never understood why I did such a terrible thing, but I wish I knew why I did such ‘a hellish thing.’ I always think about this though when I read what the sailors say to the Mariner: ‘God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!– / Why look’st thou so?’

“I can relate to why the Mariner looks stricken. Is it guilt, shame, or confusion about why he did this thing? I’m not sure, but I know something of how it feels to do a stupid thing that I don’t really understand.

“Now, shall we go on with the poem, or does anyone else have a story about a time something similar happened?”

And Coleridge always takes a seat on the bench for several minutes. When we go back to the poem, it’s with renewed interest and focus. It’s no longer a dead-white-guy poem; it’s about a situation newly infused with empathy.

Telling stories makes the learning “stickier.” Maybe it’s the inherent energy of a story and how human brains are wired to learn especially well when concepts are embedded in a story. Maybe it’s what happens when a teacher challenges the stereotype and becomes a little more human. Either way, modeling courage and maturity before students consider their own struggles or failures is likely to lead to more powerful reflection.

Tell stories. Reflect on how the stories affected the learning. Help students tell stories. Help students reflect.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’m eager to know your thoughts.

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What a Night!: Fremd High School’s #WriteNite

write nite sign
Kudos to Fremd High School for holding its first Write Nite last night as a fund-raiser for their mighty Writers Week program. (Disclaimer: Although I was an organizer for Fremd’s Writers Week for many years, my only involvement in Write Nite was as an enthralled observer.) What is Write Nite? Well, it can take many forms, but Fremd’s version included the following:

Three students involved in spoken word poetry who opened with pieces that set the tone for the evening by combining humor, insight, courage, and excellent writing

The Ukeladies—two talented singers who played ukuleles and sang parodies of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum songs, including a version of “I Need You Now” that served as a plea to the superintendent to call off school due to cold weather. The superintendent was in the audience for Write Nite, and he later tweeted, “Totally energizing and glad-to-be-alive-in-this-moment evening at Fremd. Outstanding performances by all. Great for the soul!”

Ed Nickow—the father of a Fremd English teacher whose day job has nothing to do with writing but who has become something of an online celebrity due to his blogging and his Twitter persona @TheCubsInHaiku

A haiku competition featuring people who have the same names—a married couple who both teach at Fremd, siblings who both teach at Fremd, two students who have the same name, and a teacher and student who both share the same name

An a cappella competition—a mini-Pitch Perfect show with three groups of energetic singers

Write Club—a head-to-head competition between writers on assigned topics, including students who blog together writing about siblings; the newspaper advisor on Truth and the state champion sportswriter on Dare; the principal advocating online communication and Fremd’s tech director advocating face-to-face communication

Semester Abroad—a student pop-punk band that brought the crowd to its feet and eventually turned the media center into a mosh pit

The energy in that room was amazing. A lot of schools are dragging at this point in the year, but the faculty, students, parents, alumni, and community members at Write Nite were the opposite of dragging.
Fremd High School is a writing community. The best student writers are as well-known and respected as any other campus paragon. Many teachers at Fremd understand writing as something more than an academic endeavor; they cover the academic bases when it comes to writing, but they go far, far beyond regarding writing as nothing more than assignments and test prep. Many students at Fremd use writing as an outlet and as recreation. And, of course, for 21 years Fremd has hosted Writers Week, an annual week-long celebration of writing that brings together student, faculty, and professional writers.

write nite hansBeyond writing though, last night the school strengthened itself as a community. The audience cheered the principal. They cheered teachers. They cheered each other. Take a look at the #WriteNite hashtag on Twitter. One student said, ” There isn’t a lot to love about public high school, but the allegiance Fremd kids feel towards Writer’s Week is something to believe in.”

Any school can do what I saw last night at Fremd’s Write Nite. All it takes is dedicated teachers willing to plan, work, and organize, along with a supportive administration and community. Every school has student writers. That’s the easy part. Find the writers and build a program around them.

I’ll bet the fund-raising part of Write Nite turned out well, but that’s almost beside the point. What happened last night in the school’s media center for three hours helped Fremd’s students experience writing with a depth and passion that is rare in schools. I’m proud of my former colleagues and students for what they put out in the world last night. Respecting student writers and holding up their work is something that Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois does extremely well.

Lately I’ve been seeing this quote from business consultant and writer Shawn Parr: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, you can strategize all you want, but your organization’s culture is really its essence. Schools need to strategize to a certain extent, but you have to work with the culture that is already in place. From what I saw at Write Nite last night, Fremd’s culture as a community of writers is in a very healthy place.

Thanks for an inspirational evening.

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Hello and Goodbye: Introductions and Conclusions

hello my name isStudent question: “Does this paper need an introduction?”

My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”

Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?

Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.

Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.

That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.

If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.

Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.

If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
  • Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
  • What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?

When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.

A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.

With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.

But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)

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Learning with Second-Language English Writers

One of my biggest learning challenges this year has been figuring out how to help writers for whom English is a second language. These are students who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and classes but who are not completely fluent in English. They are fluent in their native languages–Serbian, Ukrainian, Jamaican Creole, Polish, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Korean, and Hindi—but their English includes non-standard idioms, expressions, and mechanical errors.

Interestingly, I can converse with these students almost perfectly. They may have accents, but I have an accent too. With the help of eye contact, vocal inflections, and gestures, we can understand each other easily. I’ve enjoyed fascinating conversations with many students this year about cooking, culture clashes, technology, and schooling. But when it comes to writing, the communication begins to break down.

The most common types of English errors from second-language writers include missing articles, missing or misused prepositions, and variations on irregular nouns and verbs. I can understand why these are tricky for those still learning the finer points of English. Of course, I also see errors in tense, sentence formation, spelling, and punctuation, but native English speakers frequently make these kinds of errors too.

So I find myself wrestling with how to separate the second-language issues from the other composition concerns. In other words, as I look at a student’s writing, I try to understand what its strengths would be if it were written in the student’s native language. Even when the writing is somewhat garbled, I can usually tell if the thoughts are organized, developed, and focused. In many cases, the writing includes significant amounts of explanation, detail, and even some humor.

I’ve always believed that clear writing represents clear thinking, and unclear writing represents unclear thinking. For a second-language English writer, I’m not sure that’s true. His thinking might be completely clear in his native language, but his lack of facility in English muddles that clarity in the version I’m seeing. Like I said, the clarity isn’t completely obliterated; it’s just muddled. But it might be perfect in his native language.

When working with students in our writing center, I usually begin by asking how I can help them. Many second-language writers say, “Tell me all of my mistakes. I want to write in English perfectly.” So how do I help these motivated but sometimes frustrated students move forward as writers?

First, I look for patterns in their errors. I learned this diagnostic practice from Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations back in the 1970s, and it’s served me well for several decades. For example, if I can point out to a student that she is missing articles in several places, she will frequently say something like, “Oh, yes. In my language we do not have articles, so I make that error.” Then we can go from there. Of course, I’m limited by my understanding of my students’ native languages, but they usually are expert enough to help me help them if I point out a consistent error pattern.

The second approach is to urge simplicity of expression. I frequently see students who write complex sentences to convey sophisticated ideas, but that complexity increases the likelihood that a sentence’s grammar wheels will come off. So, I suggest that the writer break down the complex idea into shorter, simpler chunks that he can manage linguistically. My hope is that as he becomes more adept at manipulating shorter, simpler sentences, he will eventually develop the ability to manage more complex sentences. Learning to walk before trying to run seems like good advice, but it also feels a little condescending to ask writers with big ideas to practice simplifying them.

The third aspect of my approach with these students is to be sure they know what they are doing correctly. My feedback always includes commentary about the depth of their ideas and the quality of their development, in addition to my focus on their mechanical issues. If we concentrate only on negative aspects of a student’s writing, she will frequently overgeneralize and think, “I’m a bad writer.” On the other hand, if we can let a student know that she has good ideas but is still learning some linguistic nuts and bolts, we can hope that eventually her mechanical abilities will catch up to her high-level thinking, with the result being complex ideas expressed in clear, correct English.

Am I on the right track? I’m grateful for any suggestions you have for helping students at this level of development as English-language writers.

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What If Students Write for Themselves?

writer“You can write your way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it.”

My confession emerged yesterday during a class discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” an essay in which she writes empathetically about a plain moth unsuccessfully struggling to find its way through a window and to the light. Woolf’s essay becomes a meditation on endurance, limitations, and eventually death. Its purpose seems to be nothing more than Woolf reflecting on why the observation of this small moment reverberated in her with such emotional intensity.

Most writers can relate to that. I know that when I’m trying to work my way through some sludge or explore my own state of mind, I need to write about it.

If writing has any utilitarian value, maybe it’s just that: Writing can help us explain ourselves to ourselves. Writers understand this, but how often do writing teachers help students appreciate the value of such reflective writing?

In school we ask students to learn persuasive and expository techniques and approaches. We help them create description and figures of speech. We give them advice about how to organize and develop their writing.

Then we ask students to write for us or for other audiences.

What if we helped students to better understand the value of writing for themselves? What might it mean if students learned that writing can help lead them out of their own dark places? What if young writers could learn to see how writing can be their vehicle for problem solving and conflict resolution? We can help student writers understand that when we put our emotions down on paper, they become more of an object. When our feelings are written down, they are a little more outside of us, which means we can see them better and work on them with more clarity.

Personal writing leads students to spontaneously experiment with words in ways that result in surprising versions of their own writing styles. The satisfaction (maybe even pleasure) derived from this personal writing can infuse other more academic writing with fresh, unique voices. Young writers are more willing to dig deeply as they think about their own situations and issues; they can then apply that deeper level of thinking to the scholarly tasks that schooling demands.

Those of us who approach reading by using class time for both personal reading and literary study can adapt our writing instruction in a similar manner. What if students had time each day to write only for themselves, but we still covered all of our composition goals of teaching students to write effectively in a variety of modes for a variety of audiences?

I can hear the chorus of well-intentioned objectors warming up in the background: “But that kind of writing isn’t on the state test.” “We don’t have time for that kind of writing.” “How do we grade it?”

Those are realistic concerns, and there are ways to address them, but please don’t let that kind of thinking become an obstacle to the most important goal: Help students see themselves as writers.

A student recently said to me, “When I talk, I have a small voice or sometimes no voice. When I write, I have a big voice.” She is a different, more powerful person when she writes. And she knows it.

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“Can We Use I in This?”

47134_floral_i_smA recent writing assignment in my college composition class involved telling about a change experienced or witnessed by each writer. One student told about an interesting situation (too personal to be detailed here), but her language was convoluted and highly formal. I almost felt like reading it required wearing a tux.

I told her, “I can’t find you in here.” She said, “Well, maybe it’s because I took out all the Is.”

“Didn’t you have to flip a lot of these sentences to get the Is and mes out of here?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know we could use I in this.”

“Can we use I in this?” is a question I’ve heard many times as students begin to frame a new piece of writing, even writing that is obviously personal in nature, such as a reflection on a book or passage, or a college application essay. The question always baffles me.

Why would it not be OK to use first person pronouns? How can anyone write about his thoughts or experiences while avoiding first person pronouns? Why would anyone want to read something personal by a writer who can’t refer to herself?

When I write, I’m using my words and my ideas. I claim them. So referring to myself, either in passing or at length, requires using some form of I or me, unless I want to resort to the kinds of linguistic contortions and hyper-formality contrived by my well-intentioned student.

When I tell students it’s fine to use I, they don’t trust my permission. They’ve heard too many times that I should not be used in writing. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve heard.

To help me understand how this issue looks from their perspective, I asked my students, “What is your understanding of the rules about using first person pronouns such as I and me?” Here are some responses from high school seniors and college freshmen:

“You can’t have Is in papers that are for classes.”

“One of my teachers said that other people can’t relate to it if you use I.”

“Using ‘I think’ takes away from the power of what I’m saying. If I state my opinions as facts, they are more powerful.”

“It’s not your own thoughts anymore when you have to reword it to avoid I.”

It is true that some teachers forbid the use of first person pronouns. Maybe it’s because many schools and teachers are emphasizing research-based writing and seem to be biased against narrative or other personal types of writing. That narrow approach can strangle the voices of young writers.

I’m sure that most teachers have explained the first person pronoun dilemma correctly: Using first person pronouns is fine in some situations, and using first person pronouns is not fine in other situations. But many students process that as “Too complicated. I can’t risk it; therefore, I will never use first person pronouns.” The result is that many high school and college writers are walking around with the idea that using I in their writing is wrong.

The primary consideration, of course, should be the purpose of the writing. If the purpose of the writing is to be personable, we’re going to have to use some Is. If the purpose of the writing is to be completely objective, then we won’t use first person pronouns. (If the writing is persuasive in nature, I still think it’s OK to use first person pronouns. An opinion’s merit isn’t weakened by presenting it as an opinion.)

Sei_Shonagon_artist_unknownIf we want our writing to be formal, even when talking about ourselves, we should probably use the third person one instead of first person pronouns. Writing in the 10th Century, Japanese ur-essayist Sei Shonagon said, “I have been very shocked to hear important people use the word ‘I’ while conversing in Their Majesties’ presence. Such a breach of etiquette is really distressing, and I fail to see why people cannot avoid it.” Interestingly, in this passage Shonagon uses I, apparently opting for informality and granting something less than magisterial status to her readers.

Let’s look at this from a perspective larger than pronouns. The most important ability we can help develop in young writers is decision-making. A writer takes stock of her situation by considering her purpose, audience, and goals. She then makes decisions about how to best capitalize on the contours of that rhetorical situation. When it comes to writing, good decision-makers will follow the right rules for the right reasons. Otherwise, writers will become stuck in their development at the point where their decision-making is trumped by rule-following.

We should guide student writers to become better decision-makers and not concern ourselves too much with guiding them to be rule-followers.

Thanks for sharing your advice about how you help student writers navigate this issue.

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Just Keep Going: Writing Strategies for Elaboration

scribbleIn one of my first class sessions with a group of college writers, I gave a survey asking what issues they wanted us to definitely cover this semester. The most common concern was how to add length to their pieces of writing. This wasn’t a surprise to me; actually, it was kind of a relief. In their first journal assignments, many wrote paragraphs that took up only three or four lines on a page, so I was glad to see on the survey that they recognized a valid area of needed growth.

Here are some simple suggestions for making a piece of writing longer. Of course, the shape and depth of the ideas should determine the length of the piece, but these practical tips will generate more content.
1. Just keep going. Oooh, that one’s deep, deeeeep. I know it’s artificial, but when students are practicing adding sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to their essays, they need to build up some stamina. So just keep going. Fill the page. Teach them to ask themselves, “What else do I know about this?” or “What else can I say about this?” If the writing strays from the topic, that’s fine for now. It’s kind of like when children are first learning to draw, and they create wild, unrecognizable explosions of colors and then proudly announce that it’s a picture of you. Eventually, with practice, children learn to sharpen their representations. The same is true of developing writers, but before they can practice the skill of focusing, they must have enough material to bring into focus.
2. When a puzzled student asks how long paragraphs should be, I give two suggestions. I tell her to hold her index finger and thumb as far apart as possible. The space in between is about how big a paragraph should be. Again, I know it’s artificial, but developing writers appreciate that visual guideline, and I can’t tell you how many former two-line-paragraph writers I’ve seen framing paragraphs with their fingers as they try to gauge if their new paragraphs are long enough. It works.
3. The other suggestion is for those who want to know how many sentences should be in a paragraph. I say, “There is no perfect answer, but aim for seven.” Again, this moves the two-sentence-paragraph writers into new levels of elaboration and provides a certain measure of confidence for those uncertain about what a paragraph should be. After they become accustomed to writing longer paragraphs, this rule and that finger strategy go away naturally.
4. Longer sentences make for longer paragraphs, so I also show how to revise at least some of the sentences in each paragraph by embedding a detail or descriptive clause.
For example, Abraham Lincoln was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. becomes Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most admired leaders, was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. With this addition, a 12-word sentence becomes a 18-word sentence, adding 50% more words to the sentence. Is this mere padding? Maybe, but the goal here is helping writers learn strategies for adding mass to their writing. Making judgments about that mass can come later.

Beyond simply making existing paragraphs longer, students may wonder what else they can write about when they feel like they are out of ideas. Here are three approaches to try that can add a juicy paragraph or two to a piece of writing.
1. Provide examples of the main idea. These can be personal examples, hypothetical examples, or factual examples.
2. Offer an opposing view. In addition to giving one’s own reasons or perspectives on a topic, describe how it might be seen by someone who disagrees or has a different cultural point of view.
3. Although it probably depends on the purpose of the writing, I believe a narrative section is an appropriate way to illuminate persuasive writing or other expository writing. A narrative section can theoretically appear anywhere in a piece of writing, but students can usually easily see how a brief narrative can function as part of an effective introduction.

Each of these strategies is a way to add words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, or paragraphs to essays. They will not automatically make a piece of writing better, but they will make it longer. Although some of these may seem gimmicky, they have the effect of asking students to think more, to probe a bit deeper, to push through when the easy part is over.

Writing represents ideas. When the amount of writing increases, the ideas are also likely to be bigger. Writers may not know what they know until they write it down. When we provide ways for them to write more, we are simultaneously helping them enlarge and better understand their own thinking.

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Teaching Writing from the Inside Out

Artwork by Lisa Congdon.  Artwork by Lisa Congdon.

It took me a long time before I could say, “I am a writer.” I now proudly claim that Writer mantle because I spend a fair amount of time stringing together words, trying to say something worthwhile as engagingly as possible, and then sharing it with others.

I was thinking about this today and wondering how I learned to be a writer. Unfortunately, I can’t say my high school years had very much to do with it. I don’t remember writing anything for a high school class. That doesn’t mean writing wasn’t assigned or taught. It just means I don’t remember it, probably because I didn’t do it. I didn’t do most things assigned in high school. (Yes, I was a true joy to my teachers.)

I remember writing an explication of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and an editorial or two for the school paper. One of those editorials was a truly awful satire entitled “The Bells, Bells, Bells …” which ended like this: “If we continue to allow bells to run our education, surely, surely they will run our entire lives.” Yikes! This is fresh on my mind because my masterpiece recently ended up on Facebook, posted by my classmate Denise, the artist assigned the unenviable task of illustrating it many years ago.

From Boone High School newspaper, circa 1976.  Artwork by Denise Chelmsford.From Boone High School newspaper, circa 1976. Artwork by Denise Chelmsford.

Writing is still hard work, and I struggle with it. I struggle with beginnings, middles, and endings. I use too many unnecessary modifiers. My tone frequently varies from what I hear in my head to how it appears on the page. I use anecdotes that distract from my main point, and once in a while I use the wrong your.

Over time I have learned strategies for spotting and revising those weaknesses. I can cut distracting words, sentences, and paragraphs. I look for ways to add or subtract material to enhance the attitude and ideas I want to convey. I read my work out loud before submitting or posting. Still, I’m rarely satisfied with the result. This Paul Valery quote comes to mind: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

I’m a better writer because some people have helped me along the way, no doubt about it. In college my saintly mentor Marion Gremmels helped me grow by leading me to reflect on my writing process. The writing group I met with at the Barrington library for several years motivated me to be a more productive writer. I’ve worked with colleagues who give excellent feedback and encourage me to pursue ideas and projects. My wife is my best editor and b.s. detector. I also try new ideas gained from reading a lot about writing and listening to really smart writing experts.

My point is that I learned to write on my own for the most part, and I’m glad. The lessons I’ve learned about writing come from my own writing experiences. I learned to write by writing. I learned to generate ideas by generating ideas, and I learned to revise by revising. I figured out things about writing, and the lessons are deeply internalized.

I didn’t learn to write because someone told me how to do it. I didn’t learn to write because I completed assignments made by somebody else. I didn’t learn to write by following rules I didn’t understand.

I learned to write from the inside out.

So what does this mean for the way I teach writing? Is teaching an inherently outside-in kind of thing? I don’t think so.

Telling about my own writing is part of how I bring my internal processes to the surface with the hope I am providing a useful model to help students discover their own processes. I share what I’m working on and ask for their advice, which is almost always solid.

What else? Well, my students will tell you I’m not very big on directions. When it comes to writing, I rarely tell students what to do or how to do it. This drives them a little crazy at first, but I strongly believe that if they are to grow as writers, they need to figure out how to make writing decisions. They need to feel what it’s like to grope for an idea and experience the trial-and-error process of shaping it into something satisfying to both writer and reader.

When students ask questions about rules, I try to respond with answers that will shape them as writers rather than shaping a specific piece of writing.

Question: Is it OK to use I? Answer: There are no forbidden words. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish and use the words that get you there.
Question: Is there a rubric for this? Answer: The rubric is based on the size of my goose bumps when I read it.
Question: How long does this need to be? Answer: You’ll know when it’s done.

When students ask questions about writing processes and individual writing dilemmas, I take those very seriously and thoroughly walk through options and problem-solving scenarios.

After students submit writing, we reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work so well in their individual experiences.

Our school also promotes the development of inside-out writers in a couple of other ways. I’m not the only writer on our faculty. We have many teachers in many departments who write and share their work. Through our Writers Week program we bring in a dozen or so professional writers each year who talk about their writing. Along with those professional writers, our faculty writers and student writers also share their writing lives during Writers Week. Thankfully, our students are frequently exposed to writers who articulate how authentic writing works and what it’s like to be a writer.

What does it mean then to teach writing from the inside out?

Maybe the best I can do for young writers is provide opportunities to practice many different kinds of writing, help them think through the obstacles that arise and reflect on what worked well in the writing process, and encourage risk-taking.

Practice. Reflect. Risk. Isn’t that what writers really do, from the inside out?

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The Journal Topics

journals photoToday members of our Expository Composition class wrote their final journal entries and handed in their well-worn spiral notebooks. I’m so proud of how many words and pages they wrote, and the profound wisdom and entertaining writing found in those notebooks.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about integrating journal writing into a writing class, how I set it up, grade it, etc. As some readers know, for the past few semesters I have posted our class journal topic on Twitter each day, and it’s always fun when someone tweets a response. Thanks to those who have played along.

Recently I’ve had some requests for the list of journal topics I have used. So, here it is.

Some of these are adapted from other sources, but I’m a little worried that some of the topics listed below are borrowed from sources that I’ve forgotten. If you see something I should attribute to someone else, please do me a favor and let me know.

Those familiar with Natalie Goldberg’s work will immediately see her influence on this list. In some cases, I know exactly who inspired it, and I’ve provided attribution in those cases.

I hope this list helps teachers and inspires young writers to think and write deeply about their influences, outlooks, and experiences.

The Journal Topics

Begin with this: I remember …

Begin with this: I don’t remember …

Tell about your favorite clothing item.

Tell about something that happened near water.

Tell about when you’re most comfortable.

Tell about the time you didn’t go.

Tell about a trait you probably inherited.

Tell about when you feel awkward.

Tell about when you feel confident.

Tell about when you don’t want to be disturbed.

Tell about a work of art (painting, song, film, poem, etc.) that has meant something
to you.

Tell how you knew it was over.

Tell what normal means.

Tell about green.

Tell about a memorable car ride.

Tell about something someone (maybe you) said yesterday that is still relevant

Tell about what you don’t understand.

Tell about the games you like (or don’t like) to play.

Tell about something from your refrigerator.

Tell how to do something that you do really well.

Tell about what isn’t fair. Should we expect to be rewarded for doing the right thing?

Tell about your luck.

No words today. Just draw.

Tell about when you tried to be perfect.

Tell about the difference between passion and obsession.

Tell about a memorable meal.

Tell what you think about at night.

Begin with this: I Am From …

Tell about something that starts w B.

Tell about your ideal college.

Tell about an argument.

Tell about your stress.

What else do you need?

Write a 26-sentence alphabet entry. The first sentence should begin with A, the second sentence with B, all the way through to the last sentence beginning with Z.

If you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do right now?

Tell about trust.

How are you intelligent? (from Sir Ken Robinson in The Element)

What food or drink best represents your personality?

What’s your subplot?

Tell how your hair has changed over time.

Tell about leftovers.

Tell about a change you would like to see in your school.

Tell about when you were surprised.

Tell about your favorite elementary school memory.

What are you waiting for?

Tell about what you’ve never been asked.

Tell about a time you couldn’t see.

Tell about a baby.

Without complaining, tell why you felt (or feel) stuck.

Write in praise of something not usually praised–fleas, garbage, mold, etc.

Tell about a first meeting.

Tell about an interesting non-English word or phrase.

Tell about a person you see regularly but don’t really know.

Tell what you wish more people knew about you.

Tell about what surprised you.

Tell about what you tried to fix.

Tell about your music.

Begin with this: I’m glad my name isn’t …

Tell about wearing high heels or neckties.

Tell about what doesn’t matter.

Tell about one of your responsibilities.

Tell what you would do if you were invisible for a day.

Look through your journal. Tell about what you see in there.

Tell about something minor that turned major.

Write the apology you should give, or receive.

Begin with this: “I used to believe…”

Do we get the lives we deserve?

Begin with this: No thank you. (from Natalie Goldberg)

Tell about what you see in the mirror.

Tell about a smell you encounter frequently.

Begin with this: What if…

What do you have stored or saved?

Begin with this: I want to be ____ because _____.

What did you recently realize?

Tell about your favorite lie.

Tell about your favorite picture of yourself.

Tell about when you won.

Make a list of all you’ve learned in the past week, in school and out.

Tell how you want to live.

Tell about an interesting family member.

Tell about the best advice you have received (or given).

Tell about something someone said yesterday that is still relevant today.

Make a list of your strongly held beliefs.

Tell about your favorite animal.

Tell about a time you screamed.

What is a current trend (fashion, music, media, technology, etc.) that you particularly like or dislike?

Tell about yourself as a little kid. How are you still kind of the same? How are you different?

Tell about something you earned.

In one page, tell about your mother or father.

Tell about one of your dreams.

Tell about a class that should be offered at your school.

Tell about being alone.

Tell about what you eat.

Tell about your manners.

Tell about the oldest person you have known.

Who do you believe (or not believe)?

Tell the president/principal/governor/mayor how she’s/he’s doing.

Choose one word for this year and tell about your choice.

If you could make one rule that would be strictly enforced in the community around you, what would it be?

Tell about someone important to you. Include all 5 senses. (from Kathryn Janicek)

What is your FREMD acrostic–F is for …, R is for …, etc. (“Fremd” is our school.)

Tell a true story involving a liquid other than water.

Tell about Fridays.

Tell about a disguise or costume you once wore (inspired by Natalie Goldberg).

Begin with this: I wish I had more time to …

Tell about someone you’re glad you know.

Tell about something you think is infinite.

Tell what it would take for you to be more like _____.

Do you consider yourself young? (inspired by Alyse Liebovich)

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Ready to Go for the 34th Time

Here I am, ready to go, in my first year of teaching (1981).

Tomorrow morning I begin my thirty-fourth and final year as a public school teacher. I’m enthusiastic, positive, focused, and ready to go. I’m not tired or burned out. Most days I’m at the top of my game, looking for new challenges, opportunities, and possibilities.

As in other years, I have these two goals for myself that can only be accomplished one student at a time:

1. Each student should have a quality literacy experience each day. That experience can take many different forms, but it needs to be excellent, and it’s my job to make it excellent.

2. Readers and writers think with certain habits and patterns. Students who are developing as lifelong readers and writers need practice forming and maintaining those behaviors and ways of thinking. That’s my other goal—laying the groundwork and providing the practice and feedback that will deepen those habits for each student.

But this year is a little different because it’s the last go-round at the school where I’ve worked for the past 27 years. With that in mind, I have three other goals.

Enjoy. I have loved this job. Every day I’m privileged to write, read, talk, and think about writing and reading and talking and thinking with exciting young people at the most interesting point of their young lives. The challenge of helping them find ways to authentically integrate literacy into their developing lives is always invigorating. I work alongside other dedicated professionals, and I communicate daily with teachers from around the world who are also energetically involved in the same work. This is a wonderful, wonderful way to earn a living, but sometimes I lose sight of that. This year the focus is on enjoying my job.

Here/Now. Smart teachers always have an eye on how they can adapt and improve their lessons, materials, and approaches for the future. I have no idea what I’ll be doing a year from now, but it’s unlikely that I’ll be using the same lessons, materials, and approaches that I’ve crafted over the last few decades. “How can I do this better?” is still a valid question, but “How should I do this next year?” is no longer a valid question for me. So, the attention will be on what I can do right now to make the most of each moment for each student I’m with. Will there be frustrations? Sure. We have some pretty hairy mandates to live through this year. They will need to be thrown overboard or at least tweaked at some point in the future. I won’t be a part of the revamping, so I’m not going to spend much time thinking about it. I still care about the school I’ve called home all these years, but those who have a direct stake in the aftermath should have the leading voices in shaping its future. I’ll be focusing on the here and now when I’m at school.

Next year. In the coming months, I need to spend time clarifying my own thinking about what to do after retiring from this job. Although I have some ideas, I need to figure out how to make them into realistic plans. Right now, I’d kind of like to work with middle schoolers, and I have the certification to do that. I’m also passionate about designing and delivering professional development for teachers at all stages of their careers, especially when it comes to literacy. I know exactly how to help schools discover their literacy programming needs and how to help them achieve their literacy goals. Can I make that passion and expertise into a viable job? I don’t know. I also have some writing projects in various stages of completion. To be honest, there are days when I just want to be finished with education. I’ve been a truck stop cook, cemetery maintenance worker, factory line worker, and a pizza maker. I’ve worked on road crews, farms, and construction sites. Some days I miss that kind of work, but I know I’m at my best and doing the most good when I’m active in a school.

I hope all you teachers reading this have your best year ever. We do noble work, and we have huge responsibilities. Help each other.

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What I Learned in Summer School

I just finished my last session of summer school, ever. (We are not allowed to work in a public school for sixty days after retirement. I retire in June, 2014. After that, it’s unlikely that I would return for summer school.) I’ve taught summer school for many years. Why? Three reasons: (1.) The summer school kids are different from my regular school-year kids, and they sharpen my skills as an educator; (2.) I know I’m making a difference for these struggling students in how they view their own literacy skills as well as school in general; and (3.) the pay is decent.

My summer school classes were a pretty rough bunch. We gathered each morning at 7:30 a.m., about twenty students, each of whom had failed sophomore English at least once. The record was five times, a record tied by numerous students over the years. We were together until noon. Four-and-a-half hours is a long stretch.

I like these kids. They are energetic, after they wake up, and they have good hearts. School and life have not been easy for most of them, but they have also done a good job of making it hard on themselves. Some of them have parents in prison. Some of them are parents themselves. Many of them have very difficult home lives for a variety of reasons. On the first day, I asked each student to tell everyone why he or she failed. The most common answer was a variation of “I didn’t get along with the teacher.” The second most common answer was “I didn’t do any work.” Other students also admitted that laziness and poor attendance contributed to their failures.

When I asked what they wanted out of summer school English, two-thirds of these students said they simply want to pass. The others said they want an A or a B, although Dean said he wanted to “expand [his] knowledge of the English language.”

I had no interest in spending long days with this crew and ending up with a bunch of repeat failures. My goal was to help them get what they wanted, and maybe a little more. If we can believe the reasons they gave for failing Sophomore English, and I have no reason to doubt them, their failures had very little to do with literacy. Many of them are struggling readers and writers, but they are not F-level readers and writers, whatever that might be. Their failures were largely due to behavioral choices and other obstacles, many of them self-imposed.

So, what if we remove the obstacles? Will they make better choices? Will they learn more if they are not embroiled in dramas that have nothing to do with their literacy skills? Those questions guided me each day with these students.

The attendance obstacle is automatically removed. If they are absent three times, they are dropped from summer school. A tardy counts as half an absence. If they are not in class when the bell rings or when the fifteen-minute break is over, they are docked half an absence. Absences are the most difficult obstacle for me to remove because they are set in motion an hour or so before the school day begins. I offer to call them in the morning, but none of them took me up on it. One girl missed the bus, and her mother made her walk to school across town in the rain. She was late, but she was there. Roughly one-third of the students registered for my class each semester was dropped due to attendance issues.

After they arrived, I dismantled every obstacle I could. I provided paper, pens, and pencils for those who didn’t have them. (One student ate most of a Bic pen every day. At the end of each day I would find by his desk a completely gnawed pen, the cap chewed into oblivion, the barrel crunched and cracked. I frequently saw him with a pen in his mouth, but I never saw him going after it with such vengeance; yet, at the end of each day there was a mangled pen by his desk.) I freely admit that I was not teaching them maturity, responsibility, or any other efficacy components by providing them with school supplies, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to show them that they are smart enough to pass if they make better choices.

Many students failed because they didn’t do homework, so I removed the homework obstacle. All work was done in class during the school day. If students were absent, all work was made up in class on the day they returned. By the end of each semester, out of dozens of grades for these students, I had fewer than ten zeroes. When they could do their work in class, they did their work. When it’s homework, they don’t do it.

What about the teacher conflict obstacle? I’m pretty easy to get along with, but I have clear behavioral expectations. When those boundaries are crossed, it gets ugly fast. Two lads caused problems on the first day, and we had “clarification sessions” in the hallway about their behavior. Two days later, one of them started screwing around again, saying he “needs a lap dance,” “can’t stand being confined,” and “needs a bitch to slap.” I sent him to the principal. The principal told the student he had one more chance to shape up. I called home and told his mother exactly what had happened. The student’s mother was shocked but more than supportive of our discipline attempts, and the next day this young man respectfully asked if he could talk to me privately. We stepped into a seminar room where he tearfully promised that he would be “totally chill” and asked me to please not call his mother again. His behavior was fine from that day forward.

What about the laziness obstacle? In my mind, “lazy” is synonymous with “unmotivated,” so I did my best to motivate them. I gave these students frequent feedback. I provided a report card every other day. They got their un-homework back very quickly so they could see what they were doing right and wrong. I wrote encouraging, positive comments in their journals. I gave them choices in how they could do many of their assignments. They were still a little sleepy first thing in the morning, but I don’t see that as laziness. I see that as sleepiness. Laziness is an obstacle that disappeared.

Did they learn anything? Everyone passed. Each semester I had one student earn a D. The most common grade was A. Some of this grade inflation is due to a mandated change in how we figure grades that made it almost impossible to fail if a student did even a minimum of work. One student passed with a 19.62% based on the new grading system. Should she have failed? I think it’s a moot point. If she had been closer to failing, even with that dismal percentage, I would have found a way to get her to a passing level. The new grading system resulted in much higher grades, but the students also demonstrated that they learned some things about reading, writing, and thinking.

These students maybe didn’t do everything right, but they accomplished more than they did in the regular school year, and they saw some positive academic results. Yes, I’d like to see them bring their own paper and pencils to class. I’d like to see them successfully complete homework. I’d like to see them come to school regularly without the threat of being dropped. Those are challenges for another time. The challenge for summer school was to show these students that they could do it if they try just a little bit harder.

An interesting realization for me with these students had to do with the physical considerations of writing. They responded well to suggestions with physical aspects. For example, one day Calvin said, “I know I have more to say about this, but I just can’t get the words out.” I could tell he was being sincere. I looked at him, over six feet tall, scrunched in a hard plastic chair with a flip-up, auditorium-style desktop, and said, “Why don’t you try standing up to write for a while. Just go over there and lean on the wall and see what happens.” Calvin unfolded himself, went to the wall, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

Louie enjoyed cranking out words but seemed to have no conception of a sentence. His words just went for miles and miles with no periods in sight. After a day or two of this, I asked him, “How many sentences would you say this is?” Louie said, “I don’t know,” and he started counting the lines on the page. He equated a line of writing across the page with a sentence. I pointed out to him that they were not the same thing, but he didn’t quite make the conversion. He knew that sentences had periods at the end, but he didn’t know where they should go. His words just flowed out, and he didn’t think much about punctuation. My suggestion to Louie was one I’d used before: “Make your periods really big. Like crazy big. It will look kind of funny at first, but it will help you think about where sentences end.” So Louie started making his periods really big. His writing had a unique look, but in order to physically insert those big periods, Louie had to say to himself, “I think this is where a sentence ends,” a new line of thought for Louie. Some of those huge dots still popped up in fairly random places, but as the days went by, Louie’s sentence sense improved, thanks to gigantic periods.

The other example of using physical senses to help students write better was a simple suggestion to “Fill the page.” Just keep going. They were required to write at least three pages a day. They could tell simply by looking at their paper whether or not they were going to get full credit: If the third page was full, 100%. Some students wrote more, and I challenged them to try to fill whatever page they were on.

The biggest realization for me with these students—and it’s an epiphany that I believe applies to every student and every classroom—is that we must meet them where they are. We must deal with the students in front of us in whatever shape they arrive. We can wish they were more accomplished, better behaved, or more studious, but our decisions and actions need to be based on where they are now.

If faced with a class of students—or even one student—for whom the standard way of doing things didn’t work, we have a responsibility to make changes. We don’t need to coddle each student’s every whim, but it’s also kind of crazy to repeat the circumstances that will lead to predictable failure. (Lowering the grading scale is not my favorite way of avoiding failure, but I had no choice in that one.)

Sincere empathy is motivational. A taste of success is motivational. Choice is motivational. Personal feedback is motivational. And when our students are motivated, they will learn.

On the last day of summer school, we had a little celebration party for Claudio who had earned his diploma after failing sophomore English five times. As we enjoyed bagels and juice, I told these kids to get a D if they have to, but don’t fail any more. Audrey said, “If regular school was like summer school, I would never fail.” Well then, maybe regular school should be more like summer school in some ways.

(Some material from this post appeared in an earlier blog series on English Companion Ning.)

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Helping the GLEE Kids “Discover Their Voices”!

What writing textbook do the GLEE kids use at William McKiinley High School? Looks like it’s the original edition of EXPOSITORY COMPOSITION: DISCOVERING YOUR VOICE from EMC Publishing! Good choice, McKinley High! (Now you need the new edition!)

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“Does This Need a Title?”: Helping Students Generate Titles

baby-names-268x300Most English teachers have heard some variation of “Does this need to have a title?” Although it seems like a yes-or-no question, my stock answer is “A title provides an excellent opportunity to set up your readers with some expectations about your topic and tone. There is no downside to providing a title.” In other words, “Yes, you need a title because it helps your writing, not because it’s a grade-based requirement.”

But students sometimes struggle with titles. I imagine them so exhausted after concentrating on crafting juicy paragraphs and considering the many ways their pieces can be organized that they end up just tacking on a simple label rather than an interesting title. How many pieces have we seen with the words “Romeo and Juliet” at the top, or even “Romeo and Juliet Essay”?

I’ve found that students can actually enjoy the search for just the right title if provided with some guidance and models. Listed below are four simple techniques for generating titles, along with some examples of my own culled from elsewhere on this blog. (I made the titles here clickable to posts on my personal blog just in case you’re compelled to take a look at the respective posts. It isn’t really necessary though.)

Three Key Words: This technique requires waiting until after the piece is written to generate the title. Then the writer simply chooses a few interesting words from what she has written and starts playing around with them in different orders, adding other words, and just seeing what clicks. (Much of this title-writing business relies on the “I’ll know it when I see it” impulse.)

Delight, Wisdom, and Cutie Poems
Lilacs and TwitterArt
Schools, WAR, and Froggy DeMaestri

Make It Look Like a Title: This is the title-colon-subtitle strategy used in a lot of academic titles, many of which are perhaps accurate but also boring. “Boring,” of course, is in the mind of the beholder, but the titles of many academic papers actually seem intentionally boring. Let’s not encourage students to do that.

As we help students craft this kind of title, suggest that they use a single word or a very short phrase (1-3 words) followed by a colon and an emphatic or bold phrase.

The Good Start: Twelve Targets for New Teachers
Today’s PLC Meeting: What Have We Learned?
Writers Week: 17 Years of “The Best Week Ever”
Stephen King: An Appreciation

Make It Not Look Like a Title: This is one of my favorites. Include symbols, numbers, punctuation. I’m not sure of the psychological principles involved, but titles using non-word elements seem to stand out.

Un-send! Un-send! (two hyphens and two exclamation marks)
“The New/Newer/Newest Colossus” (quotation marks and two blackslashes)
The Truest “Grit”: 1969 or 2010? (quotation marks, colon, two dates, and a question mark)
#NCTE12 – Glimpsing the Future (hashtag and dash)

Dramatic or Funny Image:
Sometimes we use an anecdote in a piece to serve as an example or unit of evidence. If the essence of that anecdote can be distilled into a few words, the result can serve as a title.

Extenuating Circumstances
The Brave Faces
Catch More Fish

Bonus Strategy: Each of these techniques can be augmented by noting that some kind of catchy sound device is a bonus: alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. Students can be reminded that this is a practical application of those literary terms they’ve been learning all these years!

Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals
Brit Lit: Reading, Writing, and Relevance
Trust Teachers

Class activities: I’m not sure how much time you want to devote to the art of writing titles, but here are some activities you can try:
– Bring in an op-ed piece and use these strategies to come up with a title. Headlines accompanying a newspaper op-ed piece are usually created based more on available column space than actual craft. What would the title be if space were not an issue?
– Have students bring in an untitled piece of their own and use these techniques to create multiple title possibilities. Then survey classmates about which is most appealing.
– Share a piece of your own writing that is finished or close to finished. Then solicit title suggestions based on these strategies.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to add your favorite titles or advice about crafting titles.

This is cross-posted, in slightly different form, on What’s Not Wrong?

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When Young Writers Get “Worse”

oopsIn most school subjects, the learning is linear and cumulative: Students learn a concept, and then they build on it. And then we add more complexity. But when it comes to acquiring literacy skills, especially in writing, things work differently. The path is not straight; it’s more like a slanted spiral. This means that sometimes young writers will get worse on the way to getting better.

Let’s consider a young writer we’ll call Ted. Ted isn’t cognitively ready to process thoughts that require much complexity, so he uses mostly simple sentences. He has no personal frame of reference for punctuating more complex sentences. His simple ideas require simple sentences, and simple sentences require simple punctuation. But as Ted’s thinking and ideas become more sophisticated, he needs more complex sentence constructions in his syntactic repertoire. If Ted didn’t grasp those sentence-formation rules when they were presented in class—because he wasn’t developmentally ready for them—his writing is likely to have some sentence-formation problems.

Ted had no sentence-formation errors when his thinking and writing were simple, but now that he’s operating on a higher level, he ironically has sentence-formation errors. Has Ted become a worse writer? If we simply count up his errors, Ted’s tally might look like he’s getting worse when in actuality he’s getting “worse” on the way to getting better. When the complexity of Ted’s ideas syncs up with his understanding of how to correctly form more complex sentences, he’ll be a stronger writer and thinker. And then this recursive process will resume from Ted’s new level of expertise.

The same dynamic is true of young writers with a growing vocabulary. The first time Rachel uses a new word, she might use it wrong, either grammatically or in terms of its context or connotations. After she learns the new word’s contours and correct usage, she’ll probably use it correctly for the rest of her life. But if we take a measure of Rachel’s writing while her acquisition of that word is still forming, we may see a stylistic or syntactic error that is actually the result of new growth. If Rachel’s vocabulary wasn’t growing, she wouldn’t be making that error. Paradoxically, her error is a result of an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary.

All of this is a long way of saying we must be very careful with summative assessments of writing. At any given point, each student is developing new abilities; trying new words, phrasings, ideas and constructions; and experimenting with every aspect of writing. Because writing is so multi-faceted, some aspects will be farther along than others, and some may appear to be going backwards as trial-and-error takes place. While some mistakes are simply mistakes, others are missteps resulting from important experimentation that will soon result in helping the writer become more versatile and articulate.

Just as every piece of writing benefits from going through a process, every young writer is also midstream in an on-going developmental process. Learning to write is the most dynamic, recursive academic process a student is likely to experience. Let’s be sure we see “errors” as a healthy, predictable part of that process and not allow stand-alone assessments relying on static measurements to characterize any student’s ability.

Assessing a student writer’s growth with accuracy and validity requires multiple check-points across a long period of time. Any other approach carries a high risk of catching a student in the act of getting worse on the way to getting better.

Thank you for reading this. Your comments are welcome and appreciated!

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Revision is not a re-take.

“Can I re-take your test?” This is a question teachers at our school are currently considering. Should we allow students to re-take tests and quizzes so that they can demonstrate more learning and receive higher grades? I understand the plusses and minuses of these practices. Lately though, I’ve been hearing writing teachers, at our school and elsewhere, lump together re-taking tests and revising writing. Regardless of how we want to think about allowing (or even encouraging) students to re-take tests, writing teachers must insist that revisions are very different from re-taking tests. Revision is not a re-take.

When students re-take tests, they have additional opportunities to show that they have learned more. Most schools allowing test re-takes require that students show proof that they have somehow prepared for the re-take by conferring with the teacher, visiting a tutoring center, or doing extra homework problems. Theoretically, these additional experiences instill more knowledge in students’ brains, and the test re-take will generate a higher grade based on that learning. OK fine.

Revising a writing piece is a very different process. When we come back to a piece of writing, we are not seeking to show more knowledge; we are exploring how to improve our communication and enhance the way we affect our audience. When we revise, we are clarifying our own thoughts and seeking the best ways to frame them for others.

Although schools sometimes teach test-taking skills, these “skills” are not real-world tools. They are artificial, academic game strategies. Learning to re-take tests is an even more dubious expenditure of intellectual energy.

But learning to revise is an end in itself and a valuable life skill. The act of “re-visioning” means we see our writing (and possibly ourselves) in new ways, either because of feedback from other readers or simply because some time passes after the original drafting. As students learn to revise, they are engaging in acts of re-creation. Sometimes revision is an artistic process; sometimes it’s a rhetorical process. Sometimes it’s both, but it’s always a more sophisticated process than more thoroughly learning static content in order to re-take a test.

Writing teachers play an important role in helping students develop these revision abilities. As we help students see their own words through the eyes of someone else, we are deepening the ways they use words to express their perceptions. As Penny Kittle says in Write Beside Them, “I remember what my job is—not to produce a bunch of products but to help my students write their way to clarity.”

In order to revise effectively, students need to be encouraged to try again, to look for new and better ways to express particular ideas. If we simply say, “Too bad. You could have done all that the first time,” we are denying not just an academic opportunity but an opportunity for actual intellectual growth.

Revision is about growth. Revision is not about points, and it’s not about grades, although I understand that sometimes it needs to be converted into those kinds of systems. Regardless of what we think about re-taking tests, when students say, “Can I re-write this?” the answer should be “Yes.” Revision is not a re-take.

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Zapping Apathy with Presidential Debates

Students experience a presidential campaign only one time during their high school years. Although politics might seem more like the domain of our Social Studies colleagues, campaigns provide plenty to talk about in English/Language Arts classes too. What better way to focus on campaign rhetoric and persuasive techniques than through the presidential debate series? Students frequently assume the debates will be older guys in suits talking about boring stuff. To a certain extent, that assumption is correct. But the debates are inherently adversarial, and conflict of this kind can be interesting if students learn to zero in on the drama. Here are the clips I like to show in class to provide students with some context for the current round of presidential debates, along with some background to share.

This 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate set the template for everything that came after. Former Vice-President Richard Nixon looks like he’s ready to pass out; he was actually a little under the weather. You can see Nixon mop his upper lip at 2:10. Senator John Kennedy, on the other hand, looks cool and confident. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it on those new-fangled televisions were wowed by Kennedy.

In 1976, President Ford had a complete brain fart in his debate with Jimmy Carter as he claimed that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. 21st century students might need some help with the context on this one.

Four years later, President Jimmy Carter was laid out by former California governor Ronald Reagan with just four words. The ultra-serious Carter could not deflect Reagan’s folksy “There you go again.”

Flash forward four more years to 1984, and President Reagan—the oldest man to serve as president—was questioned about whether his age (73) was an issue. His opponent, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, then age 56, could do nothing but laugh at Reagan’s well-played response.

The best debate moment of the 1988 campaign came during the vice-presidential debate between Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the running mate of Democrat Michael Dukakis, and Senator Dan Quayle, the running mate of then-Vice-President George H. W. Bush. Senator Quayle, then 39 years old, had been deflecting concerns about his age by saying that he was about the same age as John Kennedy when he campaigned for the presidency. Senator Bentsen, John Kennedy’s senate colleague in the 1950s, didn’t take too well to that comparison.

This 1992 clip is more of a study in style than substance. You can see President Bush check his watch at the beginning of this clip. Then a questioner tries to get President George H. W. Bush, Governor Bill Clinton, (and Texas billionaire Ross Perot) to describe the effects of the recession. Bush fumbles it; Clinton nails it.

When Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush debated in 2000, we saw two of the most unappealing candidates ever try to outsmart-aleck each other. If all you ever knew about these candidates was what you saw here, who would you vote for?

On the day after a debate, be sure to debrief. Ask students about their perceptions. Resist the urge to impose your own views. Let them talk, question, and learn from each other. Help your students find the balance between the seriousness of the issues facing our country and the fascinating fun inherent in a campaign.

More clips are here from our friends at C-SPAN. A pretty decent scorecard graphic organizer is here, also from C-SPAN.

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6-Word Memoirs with Wordle

To fully maximize this community-building activity, you will need Internet access to Youtube and Wordle on a computer connected to a projector. Each student will write an individual six-word memoir after watching a couple of videos providing models. Then Wordle will form a cloud-based image synthesizing the 6-word memoirs of everyone in the class. Here is the step-by-step breakdown:

First show these two Youtube videos. It’s always a good idea to preview videos before showing them in class. The one on the top has some words and images that might not be appropriate for every clientele. The one on the bottom will be fine for most classes.

After watching these videos, students will be ready to write their own 6-words memoirs. Be sure to tell them that others will see what they write, and then provide a few minutes to write the memoirs.

Now, here’s the fun part. Fire up the computer and projector and go to Wordle and demonstrate how it works. Throw in a bunch of text from the daily newspaper, school web site, Shakespeare speech, anything. Then hit Go. Play around with the formatting tools to give students the idea that the words can be formatted in a variety of designs.

Then invite students to type in their six-word memoirs with no caps. As students type, others will see what their classmates write. The teacher will probably need to do some minor editing after everyone is finished typing to fix up misspellings or inconsistent forms of words. (Wordle works best when words are repeated in exactly the same form.) Then hit Go. A preliminary version of the Wordle will appear. Then you can play around with the formatting tools to graphically capture the essence of what the words convey. The class will know when the appropriate font, color scheme, etc. matches the essence of the words.

Although this can be an excellent warm-up activity for many writing purposes, I’ve used it successfully with students preparing to write college admission essays.

Feel free to post your comments, questions, and successes. Thanks.

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Zapping Apathy with College Application Essays

If you want to see college-bound upper-grade students take a writing assignment seriously, help them with their college application essays! Writing college essays as a class assignment provides an authentic audience, extreme personal relevance, and an opportunity for introspection—in other words, all the makings of a meaningful writing experience. Students appreciate the advice and guidance, not to mention receiving academic credit for something they would otherwise be doing on their own.

Without guidance, many students approach college essays in a collaborative fashion, which isn’t a particularly good idea when they’re trying to set themselves apart from other applicants. They ask their friends, “What are you writing about?” Then the pressures of conformity set in, and they end up writing formulaic, predictable essays that echo themes and even the events discussed in the admission essays of their pals.

Although well-intentioned, parents are also not always the best advisers when it comes to these essays. It’s completely understandable, but parents tend to see these essays as the time to talk about the activities that they have been “sponsoring” since childhood: “I paid for all those years of ballet/riding/skating lessons, and you are going to by golly write about them!” Those activities might be good topics for the college essay, but it’s not automatic.

The first step in teaching college application essays is to focus on the concept of audience. Emphasize to your students that their essays need to be unique. Help them see college admission officers as actual human beings who might be reading their essay as the 49th file of the day, and the last one before lunch. How can they write engagingly with this audience in mind? This video From The College of William and Mary can be useful to help students shift their thinking about who will be reading their essays.

Many students do not feel like their lives have been exciting enough to generate a unique college application essay. Pshaw! One student told me, “My suburban life has been nothing but boring. I was smuggled out of Poland as a baby and nothing exciting has happened since!” Needless to say, she ended up writing a dramatic and important college essay.

I help students zero in on a unique, personal topic by asking them to consider their lives’ most meaningful moments and the broad themes of their lives’ narrative. For the meaningful moments, students can simply draw a line with an arrow on both ends to form a timeline. Then they add the dates and events that they consider formative. Be sure to suggest that some important events may have occurred before they were born. For example, events that affected their parents may have set in motion important influences on individual students. For the broader themes, I suggest playing around with 6-word memoirs. I wrote about that in a previous blog post.

After students have considered their lives from these macro and micro perspectives, it’s a good idea to share some successful models from previous students. Some excellent examples are available in Chapter 11 of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing). If you haven’t already started a collection from your previous classes, be sure to start this year! These models can show students various ways of opening, organizing, and presenting college essays.

As students set off to create their individual, unique, personal college essays, please be sure they have these big ideas in mind:
• Use the essay as the opportunity to spotlight something that isn’t obvious from the other materials in a student’s application file.
• Show instead of tell, especially when writing about emotions. Describe the event and situations, but don’t tell readers how the writer felt. Show details, and the emotional impact will follow.
• Write in a sincere voice—not too understated and definitely not arrogant.
• The essay should reveal how the writer’s heart and mind work.

You may ask students to bring in drafts of their essays for peer review. This is a good idea, but consider asking students to practice thinking about their audience by looking at each other’s drafts through the eyes of a college admissions officer: Based on the essay, do you have a favorable opinion of the candidate? Why or why not? What concerns you about this candidate? Questions like these can then be followed by talking about the details that were most compelling, and any unclear sentences or phrases. As always, the writer should consider this feedback open-mindedly, but each writer has the right to accept or reject any suggestions as they craft subsequent drafts.

Students writing college application essays are frequently concerned about word count. Some colleges request essays of 250, 300, or 500 words. Here’s my advice to students about wrestling with word count: Write it big. Then revise to fit the word count. Students will frequently write a brief draft, check the word count, then add a little more, gradually sneaking up on the word count. This tends to result in weak, tentative writing.

If, on the other hand, a student writes the essay boldly, thoroughly describing everything and showing how his heart and mind works, without too much regard for length, the result is likely to be stronger writing with better verbs and description. Of course, it will be too long, but we can help with that!

Most writers have a hard time discarding words that they have labored to bring into existence. Students are no different. During this past week I’ve said to at least a dozen students, “I’m going to do some surgery here. I’m not making your writing better; I’m making it shorter.” They understand.

When editing student writing for word count, look for repeated ideas, extra adjectives, passages that can be easily lifted without affecting the overall structure or message, and any use of very or really. (I tell students that if they are using very or really, the next word probably needs to be stronger.)

For example, here is Jenny D.’s first draft that came in a little too long:

Out of all my extracurricular activities and clubs, Peer Ministry through my church has given me the greatest sense of fulfillment. I have loved building relationships with the kids by helping them with problems and answering any questions they may have. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will all be worth it.

The decision to become a peer minister myself was not a hard one because I had already gone through the two year program which prepares students to make the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. I felt by being in religion classes with older peers aiding the class that I was truly able to connect with the material and the rest of my classmates. Part of the reason why I chose to become a teen leader was to help other students get the most out of the class. When the students have questions about the Confirmation ceremony or about the sacrament in general, I am always there to help them as much as I can. I am very glad I have had great opportunities such as this one to show me that helping others is just as important as helping yourself.

By being there for the students and helping them it gave me a sense of accomplishment and was very gratifying. In return though, the students received advice from an experienced peer and felt comfortable talking to someone who could relate to them.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. One boy in my class started attending the class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is truly “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I finally saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class.

I hope that the students get the amazing experience that I did when I went through the program.

Jenny is obviously a good writer and a thoughtful person with relevant experiences. These facts come through pretty well in this draft. But at 514 words, it’s about 40% over the school’s required word count of 300. So we went to work on it, taking out any repetitive material, and focusing on one idea. We left in two specific situations emphasizing Jenny’s main idea that the most rewarding aspect of teaching is helping people. We cut the sentences that told about emotions and focused on the details that revealed those emotions. We made sure the beginning and ending were strong. This final version is exactly 300 words:

I love building relationships with people by helping them with problems and answering their questions. Out of all my extracurricular activities, my church’s peer ministry provides the greatest sense of fulfillment by allowing me to make a difference in the lives of my classes.

One day during school last year a girl from my peer ministry class looked distressed in the hallway, so I approached her and asked what was wrong and if I could do anything to help. She told me her grandmother had passed away unexpectedly and she just needed someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on. Listening to and supporting my student in that moment made our relationship grow. Another student started attending our class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class. I kept in touch with the kids in my class throughout the summer and now that it has started back up again we are closer than ever.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. Being there for the students and helping them gives me a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will be worth it. Serving my community by being a peer minister at my church has been a great form of service for learning, building relationships, and rediscovering what I love so much about teaching.

Helping students with college essays is one of my most gratifying activities of the school year. Students actually care about their writing. They think deeply and well and try their best to express their most important ideas. They see value in feedback, editing, and revision. The “reward” is not a grade but an intrinsically satisfying, powerful piece of writing and—hopefully–college admission.

If you’re working with younger students, plant the idea of college application essays early and often. If a student writes a piece that could morph into a college application essay, write a note saying, “This is a keeper! It could be a college essay in a couple of years!”

Your advice, stories, and input about helping students with college application essays are welcome ! And thanks to Jenny D. for permitting the use of her writing here!

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Our Creative Writing Class

Some questions about our Creative Writing class have come my way in the past few days from a few different people. Although I responded to those folks by email, I thought I’d offer this as a blog post too with the hope that others searching for ideas will find it heplful. If this is more or less than you’re looking for, feel free to stop, or ask for more!

When I started teaching Creative Writing, the best advice I received was from my colleague Kevin Brewner. Although I knew what I wanted students to learn and experience, I wasn’t so sure about the subjective grading. So I asked, “How do you figure grades in Creative Writing?” His answer: “By weight.” Great, great advice. Sometimes quantity is quality. With that in mind, I created a grade contract requiring students trying for an A to write 75 journal entries, a 30-page manuscript, some kind of publication submission, numerous assignments, and participation in whole-class peer review. Those who wanted to aim lower had somewhat less demanding expectations. This raises all kinds of grading-related philosophical questions and concerns. I understand that. All I can say is that this has worked for my students and me. I try to never talk about grades and writing in the same conversation with students. In fact, I hardly ever talk about grades, but the day of reckoning always arrives, and we need to have a way to approach it. The grade contract is ours.

Let’s tackle those other elements one at a time. First of all, the journals are the starting point for each class session. I said pretty much all I know about journals in a previous blog post. Maybe you won’t mind popping over there for my take on journals.

The manuscripts can be a 30-page single project, or a collection of various pieces produced over the course of the semester. The assignments, activities, and exercises from class can be wrestled (or massaged, if you prefer) into more polished versions to be included in the manuscript.

As we work through poetry, drama, and prose, students attempt a variety of writing genres, formats, purposes, and styles. Some of those pieces—but not all of them—will find their way into those manuscripts, along with some of the ideas that started out as journal entries.

The publication submission can be a contest entry, a presentation at Writers Week, a Facebook “note,” contribution to Polyphony,,, or, a more-elaborate-than-average post, or the school’s literary magazine. I’m also open to suggestions from students. The main thing is that it has to be available for others to see. Three of my students this semester started new blogs through Blogger or WordPress. That was pretty cool.

I have all kinds of assignments and in-class activities—too many to upload here. If you’re looking for something in particular, please let me know, and I’ll try to provide it or steer you toward it.

We do Wednesday “sharing sessions.” This means that students sign up in advance for a specific Wednesday or two when they will bring one or two pages of their writing for the class’s consideration and feedback. Before we do this, I give them a talking-to about the importance of pairing criticism with suggestions. If a criticism doesn’t have a suggestion attached, it can be written as a margin comment, but it should not be said out loud. That has worked pretty well. On those Wednesdays, each of the students for the day distributes copies of their work, and the other students read it and write comments on it. After ten minutes or so, the writer is invited to read it aloud. Sometimes they do; sometimes they prefer to have it read by someone else. In rare cases, they say something like “I’d really rather it just remain on the page.” That wish is respected. Then for about ten minutes, students offer oral comments and suggestions. Sometimes I have to steer the conversation a bit, but these sessions are almost always productive and memorable.

So, a typical day begins with a journal prompt, followed by an activity, followed by the opportunity for anyone (including me) to read aloud or tell about something written that day.

A typical week includes three of those typical days, plus Wednesday sharing sessions, and on Friday, we do “topic journals,” a collection of notebooks on specific topics that students take turns adding to throughout the semester.

Some of the dilemmas I haven’t quite solved:

1. Is a genre by genre approach the best way to go? If so, which genre should we start with?
2. How can I integrate more one-on-one time with individual writers?
3. How can I serve the larger composition instruction needs of Creative Writing students who take this class in order to avoid the research paper in our Expository Composition class? I use some of the description and pre-writing activities from our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice textbook in Creative Writing, but I still wonder if I’m doing enough of this to meet the needs of the heterogenous class make-up this class tends to pull in.

Your thoughts on those issues are extremely welcome.

Here is a list of the books that have been helpful to me for our Creative Writing class:
Thomas Newkirk: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones
Penny Kittle: Write Beside Them
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand
Natalie Goldberg: Old Friend from Far Away
Geoff Hewit: Today You Are My Favorite Poet
Ted Kooser: The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Sheila Bender: Writing Personal Poetry

English Companion Ning and Twitter are also great ways to connect with other teachers interested in this kind of class and who are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a good thing. I’m glad to help, and maybe those of you reading this post can also somehow help each other.

Again, I don’t intend for this to be read as The One True Way to Do Creative Writing. It’s just the way I’ve done it, for better or worse, mostly better, but I’m always looking for ways to make things even more rewarding for our young writers. Please share your ideas. Thanks for reading.

Our Creative Writing class outside on the day after the seniors left us.

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